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BSIF review of 2021

31 March 2022

IT SEEMS that the last two years have been a whirlwind in the industry, with the PPE crisis of the pandemic and the changing requirements for the introduction of a new UK Conformity Assessment regime for manufactured goods, created by our departure from the European Union.

In my foreword to the 2021 BSIF Industry Reference Guide, I talked about the need for reflection and recalibration in the industry following the lessons learnt from the crisis, but we appear not to have got there yet. There have, it is true, been reports from the National Audit Office, hearings by the Select Committee covering Public Accounts but the promised Public Enquiry will not now take place until we are well into 2022.

It would be wrong to attempt to second-guess what the conclusions of such enquiries will deliver given the vast scale and very short timeframes in 2020 with the circumstances being, as we have come to accept, “unprecedented”. 

I would expect that any conclusions reached will mainly focus on lack of readiness and potential future learnings on the subject. When the peak of the PPE supply crisis had abated somewhat, there was a great deal of discussion around UK Make and the need to “onshore” manufacturing to reduce future reliance on extended supply chains. However, despite an increase in UK manufactured PPE the much vaunted National Health Service and Public Health England workshops with manufacturers has yet to begin. The original plan was for these workshops to commence in January 2021 but these were then re-scheduled until April, then September and as of yet they are still to happen. It could be of course, that this has been delayed by the fact that the government has over 400,000 pallets of “PPE” (some of which is questionable product) still in storage around the country! Nonetheless, Covid 19 has not gone away and as I write this foreword, we have the new Omicron variant threatening, and a strategic approach involving the experts in the safety industry must happen or the mistakes of the past could well be repeated.

It has been widely reported that the word of the year 2021was “vax” but I would argue that it should have been “delays”. The combination of the pandemic and the UK exit from the EU has seen continuing disruption to supply chains across a wide range of industries.

During September 2020 we had the winding out of the PPE Easement 2020/403 and the launching of guidance for the UK Conformity Assessment (UKCA & UKNI) regime for products, including PPE. The guidance stated that in the event of an EU/UK deal that did not include mutual recognition, then after the 31st of December 2021 CE marked product could no longer be placed on the GB market. The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed on the 24th of December 2020 confirmed that there would be no mutual recognition of the UK/EU, product conformity assessment processes.

All across the industry the focus was on making this happen. Conformity assessment for PPE in the UK market had to be carried out by newly instituted UK Approved Bodies. These Approved Bodies, formerly UK Notified Bodies under the CE regime began to attempt to increase resource and capacity to deliver certification to the deadlines. This, of course, was against the backdrop of all the extra work undertaken to approve and certify Covid related PPE under easement.

Despite the various alleviations to the requirements to affix the UKCA/UKNI mark to the product itself, the market was clearly not going to be ready.

BSIF lobbied the ministers involved seeking further extensions to the standstill period but, suffered straight away a very negative response from the Under Secretary of State responsible, who maintained that “his officials had been working with the Approved Bodies to increase capacity to ensure that we were ready”. I responded that this was news to me and indeed news to the Approved Bodies who are all members of BSIF. At the same time I had the opportunity to highlight the risk that once again a lack of PPE would be on the front pages, not this time due to a global shortage but to an arbitrary, politically expedient date.

Some 3 weeks after that exchange the implementation of UKCA/NI requirement was delayed by a further year through the increase in the standstill period. Of course it wasn’t all down to BSIF lobbying but at least this “delay” demonstrated that Westminster was indeed listening and it is something of an example where we can indeed speak truth or indeed reality to power.

Throughout 2021 we have been very busy promoting the needs for stronger market surveillance in our category but that has yet to bear fruit. Our relationships with the authorities are strong and we definitely have an adequate share of voice but lack enforcement remains and it undermines the Regulation and maintains an unfair market.

2020 was indeed a unique year and 2021 started with the UK outside of the UK meaning a different set of problems were presented. The BSIF has always been on hand to advise both members and end users on PPE and Safety Standards and the applicable legislation and, given the changes from Directive to Regulation to Easement and the effects of Brexit we hope we have discharged our responsibilities diligently. 

The UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement of December 2020 suddenly produced new challenges, as the membership posed us a series of questions on tariffs, duties and definitions of product origins. We worked with BEIS and HMRC on these questions but as ever guidance is often general and directional rather than appropriately specific. BSIF were ultimately not best placed to provide advice directly. What we were able to do was partner with a training company, expert in this field and create an Import and Export Essentials training course which we offered to the membership at a subsidised rate. The uptake has been very good and feedback very positive indeed. I commend it to you. 

As ever the BSIF seek to help and support our membership and the UK Occupational Safety and Health market. This is our mission and we look forward to continuing to serve in 2022.

Alan Murray