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From the CEO's desk - July 2020

26 June 2020

Alan Murray pays tribute to ex-chairman of the BSIF Test and Certification Association, and examines the swarms of non-compliant PPE that have emerged during the COVID-19 crisis.

Firstly, I would like to start the CEO Desk piece by wishing you all the best of health, and I hope that since the last edition of HSM was published you and your families have all come through the last three months of the pandemic.

Aside from the pandemic, I sadly have to tell you that our friend and colleague Kevin Warren was killed on Sunday 5 April in a motorcycling accident. Kevin was, for many years, chairman of the BSIF Test and Certification Association, and a key contributor to vertical, horizontal and ad hoc groups at EU level. Kevin’s contribution to the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) industry and BSIF was immense. He was greatly respected and an outstanding professional in his field.At the start of the COVID crisis he had been working directly with NHS trusts on the safe provision of PPE.

Kevin, a former recipient of the BSIF Outstanding Contribution Award, will be missed greatly. I’m sure that you will join with me in passing our most sincere condolences to his wife Pam, and to his children. 

The impact of COVID-19 on our society has of course been enormous. The last edition of HSM was April and I penned my piece on 26 of March. We had just entered lockdown and the COVID-19 statistics were 7000 confirmed cases, with a death toll of 400. As I write this piece on 25 June, the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the UK has gone over 43,000, with the number of confirmed cases of the virus over 300,000.

What the country could have done better to manage the crisis is not for me to speculate on in this column - and certainly not for the here and now. However, I would say that we are qualified to have an opinion on the supply of PPE in the context of the virus.

The virus originated in Wuhan and Hubei in China - a significant hub in the world production of filtering face piece respirators (disposables) and limited life clothing. This resulted in regional lockdowns and the widespread dislocation of the supply chain of critical products.

National borders in the EU were closed and the exportation of COVID-19 related PPE was effectively banned. National Authorities began to scramble for supplies on a huge scale and the EU created a Joint Procurement programme for PPE - all of which contributed to the famine of PPE, until now, most acutely respirators. As this incredible worldwide upsurge in demand took hold, supply of appropriately tested and certified life preserving product was immediately under immense pressure.

Cue the opportunists promoting PPE, companies with little-or-no previous experience in this highly regulated market.

I previously reported that BSIF became the advice source for the market on how to recognise non-conforming, non-approved product. The enquiries were from all corners: traders (who had no prior experience of PPE); NHS Trusts; police forces; and all manner of end users.

BSIF published the checklist on how to ensure that product documentation is correct. Along with our colleagues at HSM, we hosted a webinar on the topic, which had 1200 registrations, and we answered the 200 questions raised within five days. We also created a video on navigating the NANDO web site of Notified Bodies

We also provided training input and materials on PPE to the authorities which they used to train OPSS and Trading Standards staff on PPE.

At the same time we were fully engaged supporting the government departments on providing their official guidance to the market on conformity assessment of COVID-19 related products under easement from EU 2016/425 legislation, both for direct government/NHS purchases and wider supply. Given that this type of guidance document being published by a government department is in itself a rare thing, I have to tell you that there were four versions of guidance, just for PPE manufacturers, produced by BEIS/OPSS within a period of five weeks.

The HSE was under similar pressure to produce guidance on a wide variety of issues which, once again, we contributed to. HSE eventually produced a Safety Alert prohibiting the sale of and the use of KN95 at work. This was, of course, very much needed.

The country - and especially people involved in running a business - will know that the number of new pieces of guidance published over the last three months has been incredible, and almost impossible to keep up with.

Notwithstanding the guidance published on PPE, BSIF still reported more than 200 cases of non-conforming PPE products to the enforcement authorities. Reporting only comes after we have engaged with an economic operator, advised them of their responsibilities and they refuse to take the necessary steps to comply with the legislation.

Is this the role of BSIF? I believe that if not for BSIF and the membership then virtually no notice would have been taken!

Even after we reported all those instances, the market is awash with non-compliant product especially RPE/KN95. Why? Perhaps one could be forgiven for thinking that the enforcement authorities just did not have the capacity to deal with the situation! Some cynics may even believe that there was an element of looking the other way because of the severity of the shortages!

My belief is that yes, there is a resource/capacity issue but it is a crystal clear to me that there is a fundamental structural problem in enforcement responsibilities in the UK.

We made hundreds of reports to OPSS/BEIS (Office for Product Safety and Standards). OPSS own the strategy, if not the enforcement, but they will parcel out to the appropriate enforcement agencies which are HSE and Trading Standards. HSE is responsible for PPE while it is being used at work and Trading Standards is responsible for PPE when it is used by a private individual (the consumer).

Can you see the problem? Who is responsible for the supply chain? PPE is typically a B2B transaction and the supply chain is not adequately policed, because it could be argued it does not fall directly into the responsibilities of the nominated enforcement agencies.

The problem - and the solution - lies in policing the supply chain. BSIF has made this clear time and time again to the authorities and we will continue to do so. The last three months saw so many pop up businesses in PPE it was incredible, but it was also clear that they did not understand the responsibilities that go with selling life sustaining equipment.

There are many things that I have learned over the last few months but the main one is that it is our membership that has the necessary expertise and experience - and now more than ever it is vital that users of PPE ensure that they take product from capable suppliers established within the Registered Safety Supplier Scheme. In our engagement supporting the market we have made this clear and we will continue to do so.

In closing, I look forward to updating you next time on Brexit which is marching on.

Again I wish you the best of health and success in these difficult times.

Alan Murray is chief executive of BSIF.

For more information visit www.bsif.co.uk