CEO's desk - April 2020

26 March 2020

Supply of PPE has been significantly interrupted just as our healthcare professionals need it the most. Alan Murray gives an insight into the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry.

AS WE started the new year I remember thinking ahead to potential content for this regular HSM column and wondering what the major topics would be following the settling down of Brexit. In actual fact when writing the February column (in January 2020) we were still focusing on the effects of Brexit and the potential impacts of tariff changes, with much of the PPE manufacturing being overseas. 

Other information though, was coming out of the far east at that time, the impact of which we really did not appreciate. The news was of course the reporting of the emergence of the novel corona virus, now renamed COVID 19.

The virus, originated in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019 and the lockdown action that the Chinese government took to contain the disease had immediate impacts for PPE production and availability. Wuhan and Hubei are significant producers of respiratory protective equipment and limited life coveralls.

On January 23rd Wuhan was placed under quarantine with Hubei province following a few days later. No PPE was moving out into the world’s supply chains. China was moving into lockdown. At the end of January a major UK headquartered, PPE manufacturer saw their 2 Chinese facilities manufacturing respiratory protective equipment (RPE) requisitioned by the Chinese authorities, with all the production now taken for Chinese agencies. The warning signs for the supply chain were emerging, and the disease was spreading, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a global public health emergency on the 30th of January. 

In early February BSIF began to make the UK authorities aware of the potential shortage, focussing our communication on the effects on Industry, our primary area of activity. What was not anticipated was the rate of spread of the virus or the level of disruption that it would create.

Italy was the first European country to feel the effects but only 3 cases of Corona virus were identified in the first half of February and those all involved people who had recently travelled to China. However, within 2 weeks, many other cases were identified and it was concluded that the virus had in fact been circulating in Italy since January.

The spread and the impact on society was becoming clearer. While writing this on the 26th of March the UK has approaching 7,000 confirmed cases and over 400 people have died. The UK Government has now imposed unprecedented restrictions on society closing schools, workplaces and leisure outlets in an attempt to slow the rate of transmissions.

The lack of availability of PPE required to protect people especially front line healthcare staff began to become obvious to the authorities by the first week of March. By the 5th of March EU states including France, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic had imposed export bans of (RPE Masks, Eye and Face protection Gloves and Limited Life Workwear) the products needed in the battle against COVID 19. This exacerbated an already difficult situation as the supply of PPE, already significantly interrupted, faced an exponential increase in demand.

The European Safety Federation, of which BSIF holds the Presidency, protested to the EU Commission making it clear that the extraordinary closing of borders would make the supply of PPE even more difficult. On the 9th of March ESF published and supplied the Commission with the document “The impact of COVID 19 virus on the PPE market”, seeking to have normal trading routes restored to enable the products to get to where they were required. The closing of national borders meant that many PPE suppliers could not now follow their central warehousing and logistics models if the facilities were located in countries, which had applied export bans. Nor could PPE even transit that country to get to a 3rd country destination as that would have seen their stocks withheld.

While these actions were taking place the EU Commission, through contacts that we had supplied, was reaching out to manufacturers of PPE asking them directly about the status of their stocks, their production capabilities and their willingness to participate in an EU controlled procurement programme.

By mid March the UK Government had set up a Cabinet Office led team, to try to get the necessary PPE for healthcare workers. At the time of writing the UK has just announced that we will accept the EU Commission Recommendation 2020 403 on conformity assessment of COVID relevant PPE which is in fact a light touch approach to product approvals. This will enable products which have not completed the full EN approvals under 2016/425 to be placed on the market. But importantly this is only for products to be sold to healthcare workers and also importantly the process in 2020 403 must be followed. All information is available on the BSIF website

As ever in a crisis situation we are seeing non compliant product being offered. It is vital that everyone remembers that PPE must be adequate to protect the individual from a hazard and suitable for the individual. If these conditions are not met individuals will not get the protection they need and deserve.

The world is a very different place to what it was when the last issue of HSM was published, that is certain. Once again the NHS and Care staff are doing a heroic job for the country proving that above and beyond is what they do and going the extra mile, is the normal distance. In these times they are once again proving to be amazing.

In our own small way BSIF members and the community of Fit2Fit accredited face fitters are doing a great job supplying vital PPE and providing face fitting services.

Please follow guidelines and stay safe.

Alan Murray