UK to scrap Covid intensive care kit despite offer to send to Ukraine

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The UK government is due to scrap the country’s entire reserve of coronavirus pandemic intensive care equipment next month, despite requests to send 2,000 respirators to Ukraine.

The Covid Strategic Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Reserve was created in April 2020 due to concerns about a shortage of respiratory equipment during the pandemic. It includes 6,682 Ventura breathing aids, which are set to be disassembled and recycled by April 1, government officials have confirmed.

The Afya Foundation, a US charity that distributes disused quality medical supplies around the world, said its partners in Ukraine have confirmed hospitals there are in desperate need of additional medical equipment and it was standing by to ship 2,000 of the devices to the country.

However, before they can be donated, the UK health department requires confirmation from the Ukrainian ministry of health that it will accept the machines without a CE certification showing they comply with EU performance and safety directives.

Because the breathing aids, called continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) devices, were developed under an emergency government contract they did not receive the quality mark.

“It seems obtuse just to destroy them all when they work perfectly well,” said Professor Rebecca Shipley, director of University College London’s Institute of Healthcare Engineering, who led the team that developed the devices. “If the devices could help people in Ukraine, we should not stop now.”

An official from the Ukrainian embassy said the country was in desperate need of medical equipment and has been accepting all possible help despite the bureaucracy.

Heather Clark, Afya’s chief program officer, said: “We are patiently waiting but the clock is ticking. We are just hoping someone in the ministry of health in Ukraine is able to execute this letter but we have been told not to hold our breath. They are overburdened given the state of war.”

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has also advised that the devices can be donated if the overseas jurisdiction accepts there is no CE mark. About 3,000 of the CPAPs, which are designed to last for decades, have been donated overseas since the start of the pandemic.

The MHRA did not respond to a request for comment.

“These devices were allocated for emergency use,” said Jonathan Bloom, adviser to Afya’s chief executive. “It may not be an emergency situation in the UK anymore but it is in Ukraine. These machines would be used in rehab centres for the injured.”

UK officials said the decision to sell, donate, return or disassemble the equipment was taken in response to increasing storage costs. They added that the NHS had not used the reserve equipment over the past two years.

Lord Theodore Agnew, a former cabinet office minister who oversaw the manufacture of ventilators during the pandemic, said: “It is heartbreaking to see this high-quality equipment being thrown away because of bungling NHS bureaucracy and a complete lack of common sense.

“No strategic reserve is being created for a possible future pandemic and countries such as Ukraine who desperately need it are being denied it.”

The Department of Health and Social Care was unable to say what proportion of the reserve equipment was going to be scrapped or what would happen to the remainder. As well as the CPAPs, the current stock includes more than 9,000 ventilators, 21,000 syringe drivers, which are used to deliver infusions of drugs to patients safely, and nearly 2,500 patient monitors.

Officials were also unable to specify the original cost of the equipment or how much was being spent on its storage. They said all stock held by the ICU reserve was initially offered to NHS trusts across the UK. 

It is stored across multiple sites and the government “pays for this storage on a ‘per pallet, per week’ basis”, DHSC said.

“We are now taking action to save taxpayers’ money by reducing storage costs for excess stock. We are putting these materials to good use by donating them to NHS trusts and abroad, including to Ukraine, as well as selling, repurposing and recycling where possible,” a spokesperson added.

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