Our e PPE Chaos Revealed investigation broke open the opaque processes of the UK’s PPE supply chains and showed the extent to which NHS executives battled with national PPE shortages that medics said were putting the lives at risk. Over two months, our reporters Cahal Milmo and Dean Kirby trawled through more than 500 spreadsheets of hospital and ambulance trust spending data in search of PPE Covid-19 codes – the ad hoc payments made by frontline trusts for protective equipment. The investigation revealed how NHS trusts have spent vast sums with often unproved suppliers as the central system struggled to
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said the investigation showed the “desperation” that hospital managers faced in sourcing supplies. He said: “As doctors and their colleagues continue to care for Covid patients we must have guarantees from Government that the failures of the first wave will not be repeated and that they will be properly protected going forward.”
In December 2020, the Public Accounts Committee opened an inquiry into PPE shortages and faults in the early stages of the pandemic.
In a validation of the issues uncovered by our investigation, the committee has heard evidence of the extent to which hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries struggled to cope with shortages, including evidence from a director of nursing at a London hospital, who revealed that she opened a box of gowns to find it crawling with insects, while face masks were supplied with rotten elastic that broke when staff put them on.
In what was described by the public accounts committee chairman Meg Hillier as “jaw dropping evidence”, nursing and doctors’ leaders revealed that some supplies also had new expiry dates covering up old ones, fuelling safety concerns for staff dealing with Covid-positive patients as the first wave hit in March and April.
One nursing director described how the NHS supply chain “just never appeared… it just fizzled out as March went by” and how staff came within three hours of running out of PPE altogether.
Our investigation was praised by Politico London Playbook as a “superb investigation”.
Each of the 223 hospital trusts in the UK is supposed to keep and publish a record of payments they have made each month over the figure of £25,000. Sampling a few of these open-source spreadsheets published among the financial reports on their websites showed that, during the Coronavirus pandemic, many of them have been using a cost code of “Coronavirus” or “Covid-19” to account for spending they have had to make on the pandemic. We were then able to see how much the trusts had spent on personal protective equipment for their staff and the suppliers who were providing it. Over a period of two months, we downloaded spreadsheets from each trust covering the first five months of 2020 – where available, that could mean five spreadsheets per trust. We very much did this the “old fashioned way” by using XL files and pivot tables to find suppliers that sounded unusual, logging the payments and then researching and contacting the suppliers online. We showed that the desperate spending by NHS trusts to plug the gaps in supply included £1.1m spent by one trust on PPE from a costume jewellery supplier, with other trusts making large payments to firms including a luxury travel agency, a coffee supplier, a gin school, and a company specialising in wreck salvage and sales of abandoned cargo. We also revealed how an ambulance trust in the North East of England had to make six round trips of 150 miles to obtain alcohol-based sanitiser and face visors from a fashion outfitters in Manchester.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The scale of the project was daunting. As discussed above, we downloaded and searched through more than 500 spreadsheets. These were in different formats and used different cost-codes. In some cases we used Tabula to turn pdfs into spreadsheets. While more advanced data handling tools may have helped, our project has shown the value of using the human eye – and basic journalism skills – to search through and find unusual things in data and that data stories do not need to be about the latest gadgets. In all, we searched through more than 500 spreadsheets to produce a front page story of major significance for our newspaper.
What can others learn from this project?
Financial spreadsheets are dry and opaque sources, but are generally open-source information that does not need to be requested under Freedom of Information laws. Taking the time to look through them, particularly when this is done on a large scale can provide a window into how health trusts and other bodies are coping within a pandemic.