State bought 14 million useless masks, paid $27 for sanitiser

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The Victorian Health Department bought $172 million of protective gear in the early days of the pandemic that was not “fit for purpose” while the Department of Justice paid up to $27 per bottle for hand sanitiser as departments rushed to respond to COVID-19.

The government’s internal financial reporting systems could not cope with the scrambled response in the first half of 2020, leading to an $800 million under-estimate of the costs to the taxpayer, according to a report by the Victorian Auditor-General tabled in State Parliament on Wednesday.

Government departments have spent a fortune on personal protective equipment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but an audit shows some money was wasted and some items could not be used.

The audit found the state government spent $4.4 billion up to June 2020 in pandemic response.

“Not all departments effectively managed their spending, leading to waste in some instances,” the report stated.

Four of the eight departments examined escaped criticism from Auditor-General Andrew Greaves, but he found the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR) lacked effective fraud controls in their rapid response to coronavirus.

With speed prioritised over value for money in some instances, Mr Greaves also found safeguards against conflict of interest and corruption were sometimes jettisoned, leading to the jobs department spending $770,000 to hire a company chaired by one of its former ministers to manage the $500 million Working for Victoria program.

The audit found that DHHS and HealthShare Victoria, forced to use unfamiliar overseas suppliers in the global scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE), bought stock that was not fit for purpose, worth more than $172 million.

The bulk of the supplies were 33 million N95 respirators that cost $110 million and 14 million surgical face masks costing $9.5 million.

Elsewhere, the audit found, the government’s regular supplier of office equipment was soon overwhelmed by demand, forcing departments to find supplies from unfamiliar sources, at times at high prices. It’s reported the Department of Justice and Community Safety paid between $6 and $27 per bottle of hand sanitiser at various times throughout the pandemic.

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