A UK government initiative to make reusable gowns for health workers in Britain and reduce reliance on a fiercely competitive global market dominated by China has not produced a single approved garment after almost six months.
Trade bodies involved in the state-sponsored project say they no longer believe a domestic supply chain for reusable gowns will be established, although the Department of Health and Social Care says the scheme is on track.
The government initiative aims to prepare a stockpile of reusable gowns ahead of a possible rise in Covid-19 cases this winter. However, the bodies involved in the talks with the government, which began in March, said the lack of progress meant that many NHS trusts had instead bought personal protective equipment overseas.
The DHSC said an unnamed NHS trust in London was trialling a UK-made gown and orders would be placed once tests were completed — although it declined to say when this would be. The department added that it would reveal who made the gowns “in due course”.
However, Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, which represents most textile manufacturers, said the government had ignored businesses with a record of gown production.
Mr Mansell said he sent the government a comprehensive plan for making reusable gowns in Britain in mid-July, but it had “done nothing with it at all”.
“They don’t understand the industry,” he added.
He believes the high price of the gowns, which cost about £15 each but can be washed up to 70 times, is the reason why the project has slowed. “Their interest has stopped,” he said of the government.
He added that making reusable gowns in the UK could help provide the country with “resilience” and avoid dependence on middlemen to buy PPE — which was sometimes faulty — from overseas. “This was going to be an opportunity to build back better,” he said.
Problems with the government initiative were first reported by Made Here Now, a website promoting manufacturing.
David Stevens, chief executive of the Textile Services Association, which represents laundries, was involved in discussions of the scheme with the government. He said that washing gowns would safeguard thousands of jobs in an industry hit by the closure of hotels and conference venues.
He confirmed that talks with the government had been going on since March. “Meanwhile, we are buying gowns from overseas that are poor quality. NHS trusts are doing their own thing,” he said, adding that he hoped the state project would succeed in the end.
Other UK companies involved in the initiative include Asos, the online clothing retailer, which had agreed to manage the supply chain of mostly small companies that would make the reusable gowns in the UK. It declined to comment.
Toray, a textile manufacturer, had offered to produce material for the gowns at its plant in Mansfield. Its sales manager, Paul Daynes, said it could have supplied enough fluid-repellent polyester fabric to manufacture 50,000 to 100,000 gowns each week, with its Japanese parent company prepared to invest and take on more staff.
Toray already sends the material to medical garment makers in the EU and the US. “We know we’ve got a sustainable and commercially based fabric, so if other countries can make it work, we don’t know why we can’t make it work in the UK,” said Mr Daynes.
The DHSC said the government has ordered more than 5m disposable gowns from seven UK manufacturers since the pandemic started. It added that it was on course to meet its target of buying 20 per cent of PPE from UK manufacturers by the end of the year.
It said: “Reusable gowns are already being piloted in the NHS and we are committed to putting in place a UK supply chain. “Positive discussions are under way so that orders can be confirmed as soon as trials have successfully concluded.”