Social care providers struggling to source enough personal protective equipment have said they are unable to access a supply chain promised by the Government.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Health and Social Care Committee on Friday that commercial suppliers, relied upon by many social care settings, are struggling to restock during the global shortage.
Asked by committee chairman Jeremy Hunt if he would allow social care providers to access the NHS supply chain if they cannot source personal protective equipment (PPE) on the open market, he replied: “Oh yes, absolutely, that’s one of the big changes that we’ve made.
“We are rolling out what’s called the “clipper” service to social care, because the NHS supply chain has brought in an online delivery and request system.”
He added that the NHS supply chain has gone from a wholesale distribution to around 230 hospitals to a retail distribution for 58,000 settings “in a very, very short amount of time, under intense pressure”.
It is understood Mr Hancock was referring to a parallel supply chain, currently being piloted to an unspecified number of providers to support the normal supply chain, but which has not been widely rolled out to the social care sector.
This is expected to take place in the coming weeks.
Care groups have told the PA news agency that they have not been told how to access the supply chain, said the pilot comes too late, and called for clarity on where it will fit in with existing procurement routes.
They said they are currently relying on ordering from seven designated wholesalers the Government has made arrangements with, drops from local resilience forums (LRFs) and a 24/7 helpline for emergency supplies.
Methodist Homes (MHA) said it was forced to spend £200,000 on face masks because it could not depend on the Government’s distribution processes.
Andrew White, director of procurement, said the system “isn’t clear at all”.
He told PA: “Two of our 131 sites have been given access to a pilot system and have managed to order a basic sample supply.
“However, what we need is clarity as to what we are supposed to be doing in terms of ordering, we currently have three sources. Our usual supplier, the LRFs and the (emergency helpline). Where this new portal will fit is not clear.
“Of greater importance than the process though is certainty of supply so that we can plan over the coming days and weeks, and the fact that the volumes we are able to source are not adequate.
“At the moment we don’t see any evidence that either is on the way.”
The Sue Ryder palliative care charity said it was in a “dire” situation, with all forms of PPE due to run out within days, and had not heard anything from Government that they can access the NHS supply chain.
Deputy director of nursing, Jane Turner, said the organisation was asked by the Government to stop ordering from the NHS supply chain at the beginning of April, and told they would be able to access the new system and order through it by April 7.
But she said this has failed to materialise and instead is receiving “lots of conflicting information”.
She said: “A couple of weeks ago we used to use the NHS supply chain, but when we were part of that, we would place an order and that order may not be fulfilled.
“Then they realised the demand through that one service was too high, and what they said to us was ‘we will create a new service for non-NHS providers’, and that’s what we have been waiting for, since the beginning of April.
“It hasn’t materialised yet, hence why we are going to these seven providers.”
She added: “Although we can place an order with these companies, we have no guarantee of when they are going to get the stock and when it will be distributed to us.”
They are also receiving a “limited and inconsistent supply” of PPE when they request it from the LRFs, she said.
The Independent Care Group, which represents providers in York and North Yorkshire, said it was aware of the new supply chain but was unable to connect to it.
Chairman Mike Padgham said: “I think it’s still being worked out, so we have no way of ordering anything off it yet, but it will be a good thing when it comes.”
But he added: “It’s too late to do a pilot, because we need it today, the equipment.
“Why can’t we put it all into plan and then it can be refined as it goes along?
“Don’t take too long on a pilot because there are other places that need help today. We are living hand to mouth with PPE at the minute.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.