U.K. plans to burn billions in wasted COVID-19 pandemic protective gear

Masks and goggles, essential parts of personal protective equipment, on a desk at a hospital in England.
The British government plans to burn billions of dollars’ worth of unusable protective equipment, purchased in haste during the COVID-19 pandemic, to generate electricity.
(Jon Super / Associated Press)

The British government plans to burn billions of dollars’ worth in unusable personal protective equipment purchased in haste during the COVID-19 pandemic, a public spending watchdog said Friday.

The idea of burning the face masks, gowns and other equipment to generate electricity has not impressed the watchdog committee. The panel is investigating how the government came to spend 4 billion pounds (about $5 billion) on protective gear that has to be dumped because it is defective or does not meet U.K. standards.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said the government planned to dispose of 15,000 pallets a month of the gear “via a combination of recycling and burning to generate power.”


“The costs and environmental impact of disposing of the excess and unusable PPE is unclear,” the committee noted.

Pat Cullen, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, a professional body, accused the government of “sending billions of pounds up in smoke.”

The government said not all the unusable equipment would be burned. The Department of Health said only about $835 million worth of the PPE was “unusable in any context.” It said some of the excess stock would be repurposed for use by dentists or donated to charities, transport agencies and other countries.

Overuse of gloves and ‘moon suits’ and the use of billions of masks and vaccination syringes have caused a glut of COVID-19 waste worldwide.

Feb. 1, 2022

In a report, the accounts committee found that the Department of Health lost 75% of the 12 billion pounds it spent on PPE in the first year of the pandemic to inflated prices and faulty products.

Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, said the PPE saga was “perhaps the most shameful episode in the U.K. government response to the pandemic.”

“The government splurged huge amounts of money, paying obscenely inflated prices and payments to middlemen in a chaotic rush, during which they chucked out even the most cursory due diligence,” she said.

Government minister Robin Walker acknowledged Friday that “mistakes were made” early in the pandemic. But he said it was “a totally unprecedented situation” in which countries around the world were scrambling to acquire supplies during a health crisis.