Dozens of frustrated UK companies that responded to the government’s request to switch production towards personal protective equipment have abandoned efforts to deal with Westminster and are selling kit directly to British healthcare institutions and overseas.
From cosmetics bottle makers to waste bag manufacturers, businesses have repurposed factories and bought new equipment to help the National Health Service battle coronavirus. But, despite health chiefs and care homes across the country reporting massive PPE shortages, many in industry said they felt ignored by central government and described the procurement process as shambolic.
Their actions come as Downing Street became further embroiled in a spat with Brussels about why the UK did not take part in an EU-wide PPE procurement scheme.
On Tuesday, health secretary Matt Hancock said the government was working with 159 potential British manufacturers to increase PPE production. But during Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer brandished a list of 36 companies that he said had offered PPE to the government and been ignored.
In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, Rachel Reeves, his Labour shadow, said it would make a big difference “if just one, five or 10 [of these companies] were able to contribute to the national effort of ensuring that our NHS and care workers . . . could be better protected”.
Manufacturer Interflex normally supplies components to carmakers but with the automotive industry at a standstill, the Nottinghamshire-based company is using its machines to make visors, disposable aprons and face masks.
For three weeks it tried to get Westminster’s attention, according to Jim Griffin, managing director. Interflex is now selling 1m items a week to care homes across Europe instead of the UK.
“My interest is not to make myself rich out of this but to get orders so I can stop my company from haemorrhaging money,” he said. “It’s a chicken and egg situation; I can’t afford to buy the material if we don’t have orders.”
Volker Schuster, owner of Merseyside-based chemicals business Ecologix, said that he, too, battled slow responses when offering to sell 10m FFP2 masks for under $2 each to the government.
On March 26 he contacted the Department of Health and Social Care, trying to sell the masks from a Chinese shipment scheduled to arrive a week later. “Absolutely nothing happened until March 31,” said Mr Schuster, when he received a confirmation email for the form that he’d filled in five days earlier.
Two days later, after the masks had been sold abroad, a government official asked for “information that I’d already supplied in the form”, Mr Schuster said.
Imperial Polythene, a plastics company that usually makes industrial waste bags, has turned its hand towards making protective aprons for NHS staff.
The Slough-based business bought new machines and modified its five existing devices. Within three days of announcing the change, orders for 24m pieces flooded in.
Sam Marsh, director, said the company was making 1.5m aprons a week and had sent supplies directly to hospitals in Gloucester, Bath and Plymouth, as well as fulfilling a 10m order for NHS Ireland.
Any emails or forms sent to Westminster “just go into that big black hole”, Mr Marsh said. “You can wait for them to contact you or you can just get out and do it.”
The company, which employs about 30 people, is also meeting orders from hospitals and London councils for clinical waste and cadaver bags.
Simon Festing, chief executive of the British Healthcare Trades Association, said there was a “lingering sense of frustration” among companies trying to help. He added that “really trying to pin something down” has proven difficult.
“The NHS strategy thus far has been to buy from overseas rather than utilise domestic production capacity,” said one person advising the government on manufacturing. “As PPE broadens out beyond medical use, you can’t have either/or, you’ve got to be doing both.”
Staeger Clear Packaging, which makes plastic packaging for cosmetics brands including L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, is among other companies that have forged their own path to help boost NHS supplies after hearing nothing from central government.
It has been producing 200,000 face shields each week and is supplying NHS Trusts on the Wirral, Shropshire and Birmingham at cost price, as well as sending free shields to smaller hospices.
Ian Jamie, managing director of the Coventry-based manufacturer which employs 40 people, said: “I’ve emailed Matt Hancock, filled in the form . . . we’re trying to tell everybody that we can do a lot more. We could probably treble our production easily,” he said.
A government spokesperson said: “We are working rapidly to assess these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”