Coronavirus: Top-level investigation into Health Ministry launched as health workers say they still don't have enough PPE

After weeks of health workers raising concerns about access to personal protective equipment (PPE), a top-level investigation has been announced into the Ministry of Health's management of the situation. 

The Auditor-General will carry out an independent review of the ministry's management of stocks, its supply lines and its distribution amid the coronavirus crisis.

Health workers have repeatedly requested PPE to keep safe, but lack of access has frustrated the frontline throughout the pandemic.

"We're hearing stories of it being locked away, or under lock and key, or it being rationed or [workers being told] 'you're getting this for the shift'. That's not good enough," Kerri Nuku, NZ Nurses Organisation (NZNO) Kaiwhakahaere says.

NZ Medical Association GP Council Chair Jan White said she'd had an email on Tuesday morning from a GP who was struggling to get PPE for his practice. She too says it isn't good enough.

On Tuesday afternoon, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield reassured health workers once again and welcomed the Auditor-General's review. 

"I'm very open to scrutiny and review of what we have done and any feedback and scrutiny on how it could be done better," he said.

Last week, Newshub asked Dr Bloomfield how many district health boards (DHBs) were recycling and decontaminating PPE so it could be re-used.

This was his response: "We are not doing this in New Zealand."

However on Tuesday, he confirmed N95 surgical masks were, in fact, being decontaminated in Auckland for re-use if needed. 

"These can be cleaned and re-used if necessary, so they are putting them aside, but there is no re-use of them happening," he said.

But reuse of some PPE is happening, Whangarei Hospital confirmed to Newshub.

"Northland DHB is cleaning and reusing glasses and face shields or visors, in line with infection control guidance," it said.

"What we're hearing is inconsistent with what we're seeing," NZNO President Nuku said.

On Friday, Auckland Hospital staff were told "further supplies of the commonly used 1870+ mask are not currently available in New Zealand", and they're "considering science to safely reuse N95s".

It was just last week, after Newshub highlighted fear among nurses at Burwood Hospital's COVID-19 ward, that the Canterbury DHB finally gave them N95 masks. 

Of even more concern is that nurses are still reporting similar problems at other hospitals.

"We are still having reports of having issues of PPE access with dealing with COVID patients," Nuku said.

Newshub has now tracked down a main PPE purchaser and supplier to DHBs, who we won't name. 

He told Newshub "a lot of people are making decisions and there's no clear lines of communication between the Ministry, Government, down to the DHBs".

He says some DHBs' PPE has perished or expired because some had failed to audit their pandemic stocks, and the challenge now is predicting which items get used up first.

"There are certain items that we will be running short on. We have a secure supply line of that product but all of it is not here on our shelves right now," he said.

The Auditor-General will not physically inspect stock levels for his review due to restrictions on staff visiting storage areas, nor will the Ministry of Health's guidelines for use be investigated.

But staff will review the ministry's control over procurement and distribution to DHBs and other health services.