Health secretary Dr Brendan Murphy has defended his department after the national auditor-general raised questions about the effectiveness of its deployment of personal protective equipment (PPE) during COVID-19.
In a new report, the Australian National Audit Office has examined COVID-19 procurements and deployments in regard to the National Medical Stockpile (NMS).
The Department of Health received $3.23 billion in funding between March and May 2020 to procure PPE and medical equipment for the NMS, the report noted. With the help of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Health procured and deployed PPE to health, aged care and disability workers.
ANAO found no current strategic plan for the NMS, as Health had considered a previous 2015–19 plan to be ‘valid and guiding the operation of the NMS during the 2020 COVID-19 response’.
The report noted that, as a result, risks to effective deployment in a pandemic ‘were not sufficiently considered’ in the years leading up to COVID-19.
“Pre-pandemic planning was based on a narrow definition of stockpile aims and eligibility,” it said.
“Because this did not align with the way in which the NMS was used during the pandemic, operational plans and systems were changed and additional plans developed during the course of the pandemic.”
Large quantities of PPE were deployed during the pandemic. However, ANAO said it was unable to determine the effectiveness of these deployments.
“Due to the lack of a performance framework including measures and targets, as well as reliable performance data, it is unclear to what extent these eligible groups received enough PPE of the right type and in time,” it said.
PPE procurement processes ‘largely effective’
Procurement processes for the COVID-19 NMS procurements were mostly consistent with the proper use and management of public resources, the audit found. Positive findings included that the financial delegate committed public funds ‘largely appropriately’, and ethical procurement processes were established.
However, conflict of interest declarations were found to be late and incomplete. Due diligence checks also fell short, and only gave partial assurance about the suppliers’ capability to provide goods of a sufficient quality.
“Inconsistent due diligence checks of suppliers impacted on procurement effectiveness and record keeping could have been improved,” the report said.
The report noted that public reporting of the procurements complied with requirements, but a lack of documentation in other areas ‘impeded review and transparency’.
Murphy ‘proud’ of staff
The ANAO made four recommendations to Health, relating to record keeping, deployment drills and planning, and a performance framework.
Murphy accepted the recommendations, and acknowledged that audits promote transparency. However, he noted that the audit was the second on the NMS in less than 12 months, which has ‘placed a significant additional burden on the department’s staff while responding to an active, 1–in–100 year pandemic’.
“I am proud of how my staff have stood up, responded and met the challenges before them in the protection of the health of the Australian public and its health workforce,” he wrote in his response to the report.
He rejected ANAO’s assertion that it was ‘unclear’ as to whether eligible groups received enough PPE ‘of the right type and in time’, arguing that the department was not responsible for the procurement and supply of PPE to frontline health care workers.
“This is an explicit requirement of health service operators as employers. In addition, I reiterate the fact, as noted in the proposed report, that there is no evidence that any frontline health care worker in Australia was adversely affected by any shortage of clinically required PPE,” he said.
“I have noted previously that the department pivoted the NMS program to expand and enhance its role in health care equipment supply, and did so quickly enough to ensure that a shortage did not impair health care delivery. This was done with a strong and abiding focus on value for money, with executive engagement internally and across the APS to deliver essential support in an agile and appropriate way. It is an achievement of which I am proud.”