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‘Public Health England got their finger out’ — Company at heart of a cross-border storm defends sending PPE kit to English care homes

N95 respiratory masks.
N95 respiratory masks.

The firm at the centre of a cross-border row over care home PPE supplies has defended prioritising England and suggested the Scottish Government should do more to protect Scottish care staff.

Sam Gompels, managing director of Gompels HealthCare, argued English care homes should receive its kit because it had been stockpiled by Public Health England, the UK Government agency that promotes healthy living south of the border.

Mr Gompels, whose company distributes PPE, intervened as Nicola Sturgeon pledged to investigate reports that Scottish care workers were losing out because personal protection equipment (PPE) was being diverted to England.

At her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said it would be “unconscionable and unacceptable” if England had been prioritised over Scotland.

The first minister added that any disruption of the supply of equipment to Scottish care homes would be “completely unacceptable”.

Later, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman had a conference call with her UK counterpart Matt Hancock to discuss the matter. Mr Hancock had intended to cancel the regular call but changed his plan after the issue dominated the first minister’s briefing.

After the call, Ms Freeman tweeted that she had been assured that neither NHS England or Public Health England had “asked suppliers to divert PPE orders from Scotland”.

The issue was also raised at the UK Government briefing this evening.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “There’s no truth in those stories, that those companies had been told to prioritise PPE equipment.

“Rather, the contrary is actually happening… there has been incredibly close collaboration between our four nations in this regard.”

Public Health England’s Yvonne Doyle said: “Public Health England has not, in any sense, directed any of the devolved administrations to be at any disadvantage.

“We work really closely together.”

Concerns about Scottish PPE supplies had arisen after Donald Macaskill, CEO of Scottish Care, claimed UK companies were failing to send the kit north of the border.

Dr Macaskill said care home operators were complaining that companies were prioritising England and the shortage was having a “really serious impact” on PPE supplies north of the border.

Dr Macaskill’s claims were supported by an item posted on the website run by Gompels, a Wiltshire-based company that distributes PPE all over the UK including Scotland.

The Gompels website said some PPE products had a “restrictions” on who could purchase them and were limited to those registered and operating within England.

The website apologised to Scottish and Welsh customers, adding the restrictions were a “criteria given to us by Public Health England”.

Mr Gompels explained that the PPE in question had come from Public Health England’s own stocks which were stockpiled in case of a flu pandemic. Much of the kit was in storage and past sell by date, but has been retested so safe to use in coronavirus.

“I somehow can’t imagine Scottish health authorities supplying English care homes to be perfectly blunt.”

Sam Gompels, MD of Gompels HealthCare

Mr Gompels argued that given the PPE was supplied by a body with no jurisdiction over any part of the UK other than England, it was right the equipment should remain there.

The company, he said, was doing its best to supply Scottish care homes, but supplies from other sources were scarce.

“We ran out of stocks a month ago. Public Health England were kind enough to supply some to help care homes. But the emphasis was on English care homes,” Mr Gompels said.

“I somehow can’t imagine Scottish health authorities supplying English care homes to be perfectly blunt.”

Mr Gompels said before the coronavirus outbreak the firm had facemask supplies that would have lasted 20 or 30 weeks under normal circumstances. They ran out in one day.

“The fact is Public Health England got their finger out and organised these distribution channels and are getting pilloried for it because public health Scotland, or whatever the equivalent is, have not necessarily organised the same and that’s probably the nub of it.”

Sam Gompels, MD of Gompels HealthCare

He added that his firm was trying the airlift more PPE into the country to be distributed across the UK, but there were shortages of the equipment.

“We love Scottish care homes dearly and we always have done. We will do our best to supply them,” Mr Gompels said. “But there must be a Scottish scheme and the questions should really be asked of the Scottish authorities or public health Scotland, whatever the equivalent is.

“The fact is Public Health England got their finger out and organised these distribution channels and are getting pilloried for it because public health Scotland, or whatever the equivalent is, have not necessarily organised the same and that’s probably the nub of it.”

Ms Sturgeon has always insisted that she and Ms Freeman are working non-stop to ensure PPE gets to health and care workers.

They have maintained supplies are “adequate” and have been working to improve distribution to the front-line. Ms Freeman is seeking new suppliers and existing companies are being asked to increase productivity.

Public Health England referred inquiries on the subject to the UK Government’s Department of Health, which issued a statement saying its PPE strategy was “UK-wide” and companies had not been instructed to prioritise any country.

A UK Department of Health spokesman said: “Our PPE strategy is UK-wide, making sure that frontline workers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the PPE they need to stay protected while taking care of patients.

“Through this four-nation approach, we are working closely with the devolved administrations to co-ordinate the distribution of PPE evenly across the UK. To date, Scotland has received 11 million pieces of PPE from central UK stocks.

“We have not instructed any company to prioritise PPE for any one nation. Our UK-wide strategy will ensure equipment continues to be evenly distributed across the entire nation.”

Banff and Buchan Tory MP David Duguid said:  “If Public Health England stockpiled this kit and has a contract with Gompels to distribute it to English care homes, then that is very different indeed to the story being spun today.

“SNP MPs and MSPs have been only too happy to promote the false claim that the UK Government has instructed companies to prioritise England over Scotland.

“That is plainly not the case. As outlined by the UK Government today, Scotland has already received 11 million pieces of PPE from central UK stocks as part of the four nation approach.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Cabinet Secretary (Ms Freeman) has spoken to Matt Hancock alongside health ministers from other devolved administrations today.

“Mr Hancock sought to assure them that neither Public Health England nor the UK Government’s Department for Health and Social Care had required existing supplies of PPE going to the care home sector in Scotland to be diverted to either the NHS in England or the care sector in England in Wales.

“However, as a company involved publicly claim that they have received such instructions to divert, and care providers in Scotland have reported continued problems, the Cabinet Secretary has written to Mr Hancock to specifically request that he resolve the situation and ensure that supplies can be ordered by and provided to domiciliary and care homes in Scotland and Wales.”

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