Manufacturers of kit used to try to stop people catching coronavirus are struggling to meet a huge wave of orders from companies preparing to restart or scale up their operations and wanting to protect their workers.
The government is preparing to ease the lockdown and is expected to issue guidance to companies on how to keep workers safe as some return to factories, offices and shops, partly through use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as other kit to keep people apart.
Many companies have started to bulk buy equipment such as masks and face visors for their workers, according to manufacturers, with large orders also placed for plastic sheeting to divide office desks as well as serve as shields for staff in shops and fast-food restaurants.
Business chiefs are concerned that companies will be accused of taking essential kit from the National Health Service and care homes. CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said last week she was worried about the public perception of companies buying PPE.
Sam Gompels, owner of Gompels HealthCare, a PPE distributor based near Bath, said it had received a large number of inquiries from companies for equipment over the past week, including law firms and Disney’s UK operations.
Mr Gompels, whose business is a supplier to UK care homes, said it was very difficult to help the companies.
“We’re turning them all away,” he said, adding that products such as face masks and hand sanitiser “are now rare and being directed straight to social care”.
Mark McCracken, general manager at ICL Tech, a Glasgow-based plastics manufacturer, said it had inquiries for visors over the past week from automotive and other engineering companies looking to reopen factories.
“Right now we’re not supplying them until we have enough stock to supply the NHS,” he added, saying the material widely used to make visors was “pretty scarce”.
ICL Tech also sells acrylic desk dividers for offices, and has had orders for £5,000 and £10,000 worth of these products from engineering companies.
Mr McCracken said as calls grow louder for easing the lockdown and returning to work, “there’s going to be a greater demand. People are starting to prep for that”.
Doncaster Plastics, another manufacturer, has had requests for visors and shields from large companies and Network Rail, the state agency responsible for track infrastructure, as well as postmasters and chemists.
“Demand has gone through the roof,” said David Vickers, managing director. “Even nail bars are calling us up for plastic shields.”
He recently purchased 1,000 sheets of plastic that can make up to 28,000 visors, 10 times his previous order. “Some materials are now difficult to get hold of,” said Mr Vickers.
Alasdair Murdoch, head of Burger King’s UK operations, said his biggest concern was that the government could advise the public to wear masks, which would then cause supplies to dry up.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said last week he would back the wearing of face coverings as part of a strategy for lockdown easing.
Mr Murdoch said that in order to operate, fast-food chains had all gone out to buy masks and gloves.
He estimated Burger King had enough the PPE to see it through until September, depending on the speed at which the company’s sites reopened.
But he stressed Burger King was being careful to make sure it was not buying NHS grade supplies of PPE. “No one wants to take anything away from the critical carers,” he said.
Mr Murdoch added getting hold of PPE was taking up most of his procurement team’s time and that supplies were mainly coming from Poland and Turkey currently.