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PPE and the Tussle for UK Contracts


Made Here Now founder and reporter Peter Marsh is a devoted advocate of Made in the UK manufacturing. Throughout the pandemic he has been highlighting the hurdles UK factories, such as Fashion-Enter Ltd, face with the production of PPE. Below is his latest article featured on https://www.madeherenow.com/

Tussle for contracts separates winners and losers

London-based Fashion-Enter spent £100,000 making a new range of reusable hospital gowns but in its bid to win high-volume contracts has “hit a brick wall”. Two distinct groups have emerged among the companies that have started or expanded production of personal protection equipment (PPE) in the UK. In the first camp are those that have won sometimes big government PPE orders. The second includes those whose efforts to secure contracts have been unsuccessful, leaving them feeling aggrieved at the outcome.

PPE reusable gowns produced at Fashion-Enter

In the winners’ camp is Manchester-based Globus. It has spent “tens of millions of pounds” on new plants in Warrington, north-east England, and Dumfries in Scotland, creating 600 jobs and building capacity to make 1.3bn hospital masks of different types per year.

The company won a £53m mask contract with the Scottish arm of the National Health Service and gained other orders from the DHSC in England. “We went through the [procurement] process set out by the government which was comprehensive and efficient,” a Globus spokesperson said.

Fashion-Enter is in the unsuccessful group. The London clothing manufacturer has spent about £100,000 of its own money on design, manufacturing and testing of reusable hospital gowns. After agreeing a contract with a London health trust to make 10,000 of the gowns for trials, the company spent almost a year trying to interest officials at the DHSC and Cabinet Office in bigger orders, involving possibly other manufacturers that would join in a bigger project using Fashion-Enter’s designs. However the company has now ended its involvement with reusable gowns, in favour of concentrating on its main business line of women’s clothing. Caroline Ash, a Fashion-Enter director, said: “We have tried so many avenues to make this work. We gained very little help [from government departments]. Everywhere we looked, we hit a brick wall.”

Most of the orders handed out by the government so far in the pandemic have benefited non-UK manufacturers. In the early stages of the crisis, the UK authorities were often forced to overpay considerably, due to the huge spike in global demand for PPE triggered by the onset of Covid.

If the government succeeds in its plan to boost UK PPE manufacturing, more domestic production could in theory make it easier for the NHS to gain access to the supplies it needs.

Most of the companies setting up or expanding PPE plants in the UK have done so in less wealthy regions, increasing job opportunities in these areas and supporting some of the thinking behind prime minister Boris Johnson’s – so far nebulous – “levelling up” strategy.

Among the non-UK businesses that have installed additional production capacity (sometimes starting new plants) in the UK is Berry Global, which makes packaging and speciality materials. The US company has started a production line in Aberdare, South Wales, to make meltblown, a high-value polypropylene-based material that is a key component of hospital-grade facemasks. Until recently, the UK had virtually no plants making the chemical, the biggest producers of which are in Germany and China.

Medicom of Canada won a £308m contract in 2020 to supply hospital facemasks to the DHSC, setting up its first UK plant – in Northampton – as a result. Hugues Bourgeois, managing director of the company’s UK operations, said: “I’ve been impressed by the quality of the employees we have taken on [in Britain] and their level of engagement. The British government representatives we have meet have been professional and capable. I feel we have a solid basis for collaboration.”

German manufacturer Dräger – which has run factories in the UK for some time – started a new plant in Gateshead, northeast England, to make face masks, in a contract worth about £80m.

Many of these companies say they have invested large sums in automation, cutting the labour content in the manufacturing of goods such as PPE and narrowing any cost disadvantage linked to basing production in Britain.

Bluetree – a UK-owned business based in Wath Upon Dearne near Rotherham – has moved into hospital-grade facemasks as a diversification from its mainstream business of printing. Masks – made using automated machinery mainly bought from overseas but which the company says it wants to supplement with UK-made equipment – account for 240 out of its workforce of 600. Blue-tree has also set up a plant to make meltblown as a raw material for its own mask production and to sell to other businesses.

Almost all those on the health side of the company have been recruited in the past two years. In 2020 the company gained a £64m DHSC contract to make about 350m hospital masks.

A well invested UK business can produce a product to a comparable cost to [East Asia] production,” said James Kinsella, joint Bluetree chief executive. He says there is “huge demand” for developing new products that serve the needs of users better and he feels big opportunities exist in this area for his company and others.

As an example, Bluetree is developing a new range of transparent masks for intended sale in 2022, that it says will allow better communication and be less off-putting for people in healthcare settings. It has been working on such masks with health staff at the Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool.

Suchin Talwar, managing director of Southampton-based Polystar, which won a £26m government contact in 2020 to make polyethylene hospital aprons, is optimistic about gaining new orders. “If the government buys PPE from UK producers it has greater security of supply, while the country benefits from a boost to employment, increased business to transport companies and greater revenues from corporation and income tax.”

Also upbeat is Tarkan Conger, business development director at British Rototherm, a company in Port Talbot, south Wales, that has won government PPE contracts, expanding employment as a result. “Our experience of dealing with government officials has been fantastic,” Conger said.

Against such positive reports are the views of companies that feel they have been badly served by the government and have missed out on large contracts. Among these businesses are three that during the pandemic gained government innovation grants to develop novel PPE – but then made little headway in gaining procurement orders.

While the businesses say they never expected winning government contracts would be easy they feel they could have gained more assistance from officials at InnovateUK – the agency dispensing the grants – to open lines of communication over purchasing with other parts of the government.

In the early stages of the pandemic, P&P Clothing, a Mansfield garment maker, was awarded a £75,000 grant from InnovateUK to develop protective wear for hospital workers[web link-see end of story] that could be re-used through washing. Nearly all current forms of PPE are discarded after one use, adding greatly to the UK waste mountain. The reusability of the products came partly from the items using a high-grade polyester material made by the UK arm of Japanese textile producer Toray, whose factory is also in Mansfield.

Paul Ingham, P&P’s managing director, said: “We had great support [on technical aspects] from InnovateUK. We received a lot of positive feedback from [local] health trusts.

“But we have been frustrated by our inability to get a proper hearing [on potential procurement deals] with parts of the government including the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS. We’ve been searching for a key to a door – and can’t find it.”

Worksafe Design, based near London, is another company making an innovative form of PPE that feels it has had a poor official response on high-volume orders. It gained a £50,000 InnovateUK grant to help develop a new form of lightweight personal respirator to protect health staff from viral particles. The company puts its total spending on developing the product at about £200,000.

Mike Bradley, Worksafe Design’s founder and director, said he had assumed InnovateUK would have contacts in other parts of the government that could hand out contracts. Ideas that emerged during the development could be handed on to departments such as the DHSC that could learn from them, possibly using them as a basis for contract negotiations.

Bradley said: “It was great to get the development money. But we had expected more help from InnovateUK over ways to use the grant as a basis for large-scale procurement involving other government departments.

“We had the sense the agency felt it had given us the money, and then we were on our own. The feeling we were left with is that the [procurement arm of the DHSC] operates in a bubble divorced from the real world and which it has been impossible to penetrate.”

PPECO, based in Preston makes biodegradable face visors for coronavirus protection. It was helped by a £71,000 InnovateUK grant to assist in the development of the ideas behind its cellulose-based product.

Richard Taylor of PPECO -pictured with one of his company’s biodegradable face visors – has tried hard to win government contracts, but Taylor has been disappointed by lack of success in using InnovateUK connections to create a pathway towards opening talks with government procurement agencies. “I thought we succeeded with our product development and after this had a good basis for discussions with other government departments about winning orders. In terms of how InnovateUK connects with other parts of the government on procurement, I feel there is room for improvement.”

Kenton Robbins, managing director of PFF, a company based near Leeds that won a £18.4m DHSC contract in 2020 to make hospital aprons, said: “I can understand the frustration of UK companies that have worked hard to put themselves in a good position to supply PPE from British plants and now find they cannot win orders…. Whilst not everything the DHSC has undertaken has been perfect, [most officials] have shown exemplary levels of commitment and tenacity in challenging and uncertain times.”

InnovateUK declined to discuss its dealings with the three businesses, nor its connections with other government departments. It said: “We are confident that we have supported [the three companies] throughout their journey with us.”

The DHSC said it did not want to talk about interactions with specific with companies. It advised businesses that wanted to bid for government contracts to follow the advice on official websites.

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