Schools are resorting to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) from Amazon as they prepare to reopen to more pupils next week.
School business managers have reported sourcing PPE online, and through "random acts of kindness", in preparation for opening up to more pupils from Monday.
And one manager has accused Department for Education ministers of "absolving themselves" of a duty of care by "passing all responsibility to schools" to determine how much PPE they require.
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School business leadership consultant Hilary Goldsmith said schools were having to contend with "patchy" PPE provision and "big price increases" after the government advised them to source equipment from local supply chains.
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Discussing PPE supplies on social media, one school business leader said her team had "ordered a load from Amazon".
However, she clarified that her school would not officially open until September.
Another said: "Amazon must have been rubbing their hands when I did our order for all this lot...and let’s just hope the auditors don’t tell me I could have found them cheaper somewhere else".
And a third manager said: "A friend of our deputy who lives in Asia is sending us what we need at no costs. Thank goodness for random acts of kindness."
Five face masks, five aprons and five sanitizers, also from the LA. A friend of our deputy who lives in Asia is sending us what we need at no costs. Thank goodness for random acts of kindness.— Andrea (@kernowsbm) May 21, 2020
Updated DfE guidance states that schools should use their "local supply chains" to obtain PPE, which will only be required in a "very small number of cases".
These cases include:
- When pupils' care routinely already involves the use of PPE.
- When a distance of two metres cannot be maintained from any pupil displaying coronavirus symptoms.
A combination of the following items may be required in these situations:
- Fluid-resistant surgical face masks.
- Disposable gloves.
- Disposable plastic aprons.
- Eye protection (for example a face visor or goggles).
Where schools cannot source equipment through their local supply chains, and there is "unmet urgent need for PPE in order to operate safely", the DfE says schools may approach their nearest "local resilience forum".
But Ms Goldsmith told Tes that she thought a "marked blurriness" in the guidance demonstrated a "deliberate shifting" of control from central government to headteachers and trusts, who must take responsibility for their employees.
Asked if the DfE is underestimating how much PPE schools will need, given that many items are intended for single-use, Ms Goldsmith said: "I think it's very carefully chosen not to put any numbers to it, and therefore passed all responsibility to schools to determine.
"The shift is one of liability and responsibility. Previously we have been following DfE guidance to the letter.
"Now the marked blurriness is a deliberate shifting of central government control to headteachers and trusts to take responsibility for their employees. The insistence on the risk assessment is another example of that.
"So no, not underestimating, just absolving themselves of that duty of care."
Ms Goldsmith also warned that local supply chains were "patchy".
"Normally schools buy their hygiene supplies for a small selection of preferred suppliers, but they have seen big price increases and many are out of stock of key items, particularly hand sanitiser and masks," she said.
Asked whether the DfE should be providing the equipment itself, rather than deferring to local supply chains, Ms Goldsmith said: "I don't see how DfE can supply PPE. They have screwed up on a colossal scale when they have tried to operate national procurement schemes (Edenred, laptops, etc) but, as they have an entire government department which deals with public sector procurement, they could have:
- Identified current stock levels amongst approved suppliers nationally, to identify potential problems.
- Identified potential new suppliers and mapped availability over time.
- Offered advice on procurement of these supplies.
- Fixed pricing on schools' hygiene products to stop profiteering by unscrupulous suppliers.
- Clarified which items schools could claim back through the Covid costs reclaim scheme.
- Produced a list of examples of items schools should purchase and approximate numbers per capita.
They have done absolutely none of these."
The DfE has been approached for comment.