Health ministry faces having to destroy millions of unused surgical masks

There are 100 years' worth of surgical masks sitting in warehouses. Photo:
There are 100 years’ worth of surgical masks sitting in warehouses. Photo:

The Dutch government will have to destroy much of its stock of 848 million face masks because it is unable to give them away during a pandemic, the Volkskrant reported on Tuesday.

A recent audit of PPE gear found that the Netherlands has enough supplies of surgical masks to keep hospitals stocked for more a century and 50 years’ worth of FFP2 masks. That figure does not include equipment that is still waiting to undergo quality control checks.

However, the masks have an expiry date of one to five years and questions have been raised about storage conditions. Many of the surplus masks were acquired by the Relief Goods Alliance, set up by former Christian Democrat (CDA) party activist Sywert van Lienden, in a deal that cost the health ministry €100 million.

The procurement agency LCH said in a report last December that it was not clear whether hygiene conditions in warehouses were being properly monitored. ‘There are no descriptions of procedures to preserve expiry dates, sterility and suchlike,’ it said.

Epidemiologist Frits Roosendaal, of Leiden UMC hospital, said in the Volkskrant last week that the government should distribute the masks for free, but the health ministry said it was constrained by EU rules that prevent state interference in the market.

Handing out free FFP2 masks would leave shops with boxes of surgical masks that they are unable to sell. ‘That gives us another thing to deal with,’ a spokesman said.

Market analysts have said that destroying some of the masks is a more cost-efficient solution than keeping them in storage until they pass their use-by date.

The ministry said it had managed to sell some of the masks in bulk, but would not give figures.

‘Every possible attempt is being made not to destroy the masks but to find a good destination through sales and donations,’ the spokesman said. ‘If that ultimately fails, the face masks will be disposed of sustainably.’

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