UK manufacturers left in precarious position after PPE crisis


In March 2020, the British government was in dire need of an already reduced supply of Personal Protective Wear (PPE).

It turned to the British manufacturing industry to cover this surge in demand, urging manufactures to produce PPE for the NHS, care homes, and other frontline workplaces.

James Eden, the owner of clothing company Private White VC, promptly borrowed money to open a new site, hiring dozens of staff to manufacture hospital gowns en masse.

This was in light of news that the government would source 70% of its PPE domestically. However, it later emerged that government ministers had awarded contracts to international suppliers or middlemen, often with little or no prior experience in the industry.

These lucrative contracts were given to contacts with strategic political connections, at vastly increased prices, eventually paving the way for the enormous stockpile of resources, whilst denying frontline workers who risked everyday exposure to the virus vital access to PPE. This left British manufacturers in a precarious position, as PPE contracts were run down with no sign of renewal.

Company officials and executives feared that their substantial investments into setting up PPE manufacturing sites would be fruitless after the nascent manufacturing boom came to a sudden halt.

Many six months contracts have expired and are not due for renewal, leaving the domestic manufacturing industry uncertain of the future. A manufacturing official who wishes to remain nameless has highlighted that mass layoffs were inevitable due to lack of government orders, leaving empty factories in the U.K. whilst an excess of PPE from abroad sits in shipping containers at Felixstowe Port.

In November, the release of the National Audit Office (NAO) Report revived concerns over government procurement practices, which offered a priority lane for suppliers with suitable contacts. The NAO also found that between February and July, the government spent £12.5bn on 32bn items of PPE, of which 195m items were deemed unsuitable.

The NAO cautioned of the NHS stockpile which could last for years, seriously limiting the domestic market that new manufacturers can sell into.

Many family-owned businesses found that their lack of political contacts meant they were unable to secure vital PPE contracts, ultimately having to lay off staff. The influx of cheap PPE from abroad has rendered domestic manufacturing null, as it struggles to compete with significantly lower prices flooding the market.

Ben Fletcher, head of policy at Make UK, states: “There needs to be a much more coherent reshoring strategy in government,” emphasising the need to support the domestic manufacturing industry as opposed to relying on cheaper, imported goods.

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