A high-profile shipment to the UK of surgical gowns, hailed by ministers as a solution to Britain’s personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, has ended with little of the expected fanfare – with more than 2,000 garments deemed unusable after arriving from Turkey and none yet distributed to health workers.
The gowns, made by a Turkish company and flown into the UK by the Royal Air Force on April 22, had been touted as an answer to the calls of underprotected health care workers.
But they were never given to frontline workers, it has emerged. Some were instead impounded at a warehouse near Heathrow Airport, according to The Telegraph newspaper, which first reported the story.
“If equipment does not meet our specifications or pass our quality assurance processes it is not distributed to the front line,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told CNN on Thursday, when asked whether the shipment in question had failed to meet safety standards.
Britain had ordered 400,000 gowns in this particular order. Thursday evening, DHSC said it had so far received just 67,000 – of which 4,500 passed “rigorous quality control checks” and 2,400 failed. The rest are still undergoing tests, DHSC said.
A further 170,000 gowns are in Turkey, being checked by the Turkish Standards Institute, the statement added.
The government will request a refund if it cannot get a replacement order of gowns that meet requirements, a spokesman told reporters Thursday.
The faulty PPE came from a private supplier, and no part of the Turkish government was involved in producing, packaging or delivering that equipment to the United Kingdom, a senior Turkish official told CNN. Turkey authorized the private sale to the UK despite an export ban “out of solidarity with the UK authorities,” the official said.
There were also no quality issues with a separate donation of PPE by the Turkish government to the UK, the official noted.
UK government officials had repeatedly talked up the original delivery in the days prior.
“Supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the front line,” Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said April 18, when he unveiled the “very significant” order from Turkey.
The next day, Michael Gove, a member of Parliament, touted the arrival of the gowns in TV interviews. April 21, government minister Simon Clarke conceded that while the UK will not run out of PPE, the “margins can be tight.” He cited the Turkey shipment as a factor behind that conclusion.
“We’ve had three flights with gowns from Turkey – because we know that every single one of those items of PPE is needed by those working so hard on the front line,” First Secretary of State Dominic Raab added at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on April 29.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has faced repeated scrutiny over the lack of PPE in hospitals and care homes, as well as the availability of testing, and the new setback raises further concerns about his response.
In an industry survey in late April, more than a third of British doctors said they did not have appropriate PPE.
Of those surveyed, 75% said they did not have long-sleeve gowns, while 38% said they lack eye protection, according to the survey by the Doctors Association UK.
“This is a global pandemic with many countries procuring PPE, leading to shortages around the world, not just the UK,” the DHSC spokesperson said Thursday. “We are working night and day to source PPE internationally and domestically and brought together the NHS, industry and the armed forces to create a comprehensive PPE distribution network to deliver critical supplies to the front line.”
In March, the UK ordered millions of antibody tests, described by Johnson as a potential “game-changer,” but ministers later walked back that optimism after the tests were found not to work.
More recently, a self-imposed target of conducting 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was met – but for only two days, and with the help of thousands of tests that were mailed to homes just before the deadline. Tests have subsequently dropped below that mark for four consecutive days, and slumped to just 69,463 on Tuesday.
Earlier this week, the UK took from Italy the unwanted mantle of having the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, according to official figures.
At least 30,076 people have died in the country since the start of the outbreak, compared to 29,684 in Italy. Only the US has suffered more fatalities.
Correction: This story and headline have been updated to correct information regarding the condition of the PPE from Turkey. Only a portion of the gowns have failed quality tests, not the entire shipment.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Simon Cullen contributed to this report.