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In the early stages of the pandemic there were widespread reports of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the health and social care sectors (as well as hand sanitiser and other protective equipment). International demand, and prices for PPE grew rapidly in response to the pandemic, while much of the UK’s pre-pandemic central stockpile of PPE was designed for a flu pandemic and lacked items such as gowns and visors.  

The NAO reported in November 2020 that “neither the stockpiles nor the usual PPE-buying and distribution arrangements could cope with the extraordinary demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic”, and that as a result, UK procurement systems were “overwhelmed” in March 2020. 

The Government, the devolved administrations and the NHS took steps to improve the supply of PPE, including the creation of a parallel supply chain. The Government has stated it was aware that “the direct, urgent sourcing and purchasing of PPE in 2020 involved higher risks in ethical and business practices” and put a number of mitigations in place. 

Under section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, businesses with an annual turnover of more than £36 million are required to publish an annual statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains. Further information on how this obligation should be fulfilled is available in Transparency in supply chains: A practical guide.

The Queen’s Speech in May 2022 announced a forthcoming Modern Slavery Bill, the purpose of which would be, in part, to “increase the accountability of companies and other organisations to drive out modern slavery from their supply chains”.

NHS England has said it fully supports the Government’s objectives to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking and recognise the significant role the NHS has to play in both combatting it and supporting victims. NHS England Chief Executive, Amanda Pritchard, has said that this includes being “strongly committed to ensuring our supply chains and business activities are free from ethical and labour standards abuses.” The NHS England state that a Sustainable Supplier Assessment will be available in 2023, and that “Suppliers will perform an annual self-assessment, which will also include Modern Slavery requirements.”[1]

[1]      NHS England, NHS England modern slavery and human trafficking statement, March 2022

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