Hundreds of logistics operators capable of delivering “millions” of boxes of personal protective equipment have been waiting weeks for direction from the government, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Health workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic continue to report critical shortages of crucial items, including in pharmacies and care homes, prompting the government to call in the Army for help. Some hospitals and local councils may now be taking the matter into their own hands — going directly to the private market to ask about the availability of equipment and essential goods, procurement data suggests.
Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock said that “the quantity of the stuff is not the problem with PPE,” but the process of delivering protective equipment from warehouses and into the hands of health workers posed “one of the biggest logistical challenges of peacetime”.
Yet over 1,500 Logistics firms and haulage companies from across the UK have put their names forward saying they stand ready to help NHS Supply Chain, according to a database reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Good samaritans have offered up their fleets, from tractors to 44-ton trucks, but they have been waiting since they answered a plea for help from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) more than two weeks ago. Over 200 logistics firms also contacted Supply Chain to offer their services directly, but many have not been deployed by the government
Stranger still, the volunteer list came about because the chair of NHS Supply Chain, Jim Spittle, asked for it. Seeing Supply Chain’s capacity overstretched, Spittle reached out to the CILT to ask for help from the private sector.
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In response, on March 23 CILT launched a Dunkirk-style call for “vehicles and expertise”. Within the first week, over 500 volunteers put their names forward, a CILT spokesperson said. Almost three weeks later, logistics specialists and haulage vehicles are still sitting idle while the government scrambles to deliver necessary medical equipment.
A CILT spokesperson said the group are “delighted” that so many people have come forward. “Now it’s just about whether the NHS and other critical aspects of the supply chain use it to its full extent.” The Supply Chain has told CILT that it had been inundated by the volunteer requests, the CILT spokesperson said, and officials are working their way through the list.
Neither Spittle nor a Supply Chain spokesperson responded to questions about why the volunteers have not been used despite Hancock’s claim that delivering PPE was a crucial issue. Instead they issued statements praising the volunteers for coming forward. “We have and continue to receive incredible offers of help from suppliers and manufacturers of product, logistics services providers and those who want to help in many other ways,” the Supply Chain spokesperson said. “We have a team looking at all these offers and directing them to the right people in both NHS Supply Chain and wider government organisations. We are continuing to deliver millions of products to NHS trusts and other organisations every single day.”
“We welcome the initiative that the CILT has taken on board to support both the NHS and the country’s wider logistics needs,” Spittle said. “They have done a really good job.” The Department of Health and Social Care, which oversees NHS Supply Chain, did not respond to requests for comment.
Volunteers told BuzzFeed News they are perplexed as to why their parked up vehicles are not being used. Several volunteers say they have had no contact from the government since offering their resources, while others only received a courtesy call from the Crown Communication Service.
The government has sent mixed messages, adding to the confusion. On Tuesday, the UK’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries addressed the nation for the government’s daily coronavirus update. “I stood here 10 days ago and said, probably optimistically now, ‘We’ve solved the PPE position,’” she said. “My apologies, because 48 hours later our distribution issue had popped back up again.”
Paul Sanders, chair of the Association of Pallet Networks — a membership of 750 depots and over 23,000 haulage vehicles — told BuzzFeed News that the government’s failure to call on the market was “frustrating”. Sanders claimed that the network was able to deliver “millions of masks” on next day delivery.
Sanders told BuzzFeed News that he offered his services to the government over two weeks before Harries’ statement, but he has still heard nothing. “We’re worried about that,” he said. “We have these resources set up on tap and we could provide the services to them.”
The logistical challenges hamper not just doctors and nurses but pharmacists and health and social care workers across the sector.
Hancock has said that pharmacists are key health care professionals entitled to PPE. But as of last week, the wholesalers that pharmacies have been asked to go through have continued to be out of stock of key supplies, a senior industry insider told BuzzFeed News.
A spokesperson for the Royal College of Pharmacists said members have still not received “adequate supplies” and are “having to buy their own” once stocks run out. “These pharmacists, delivering key NHS services, should not have to use their own money to pay for this essential equipment,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Pharmacists and their teams urgently need adequate PPE protection to make sure that they can continue to care for patients during these unprecedented times.”
One of the idle delivery volunteers, Mark Robinson from CMS Distribution Limited, told BuzzFeed News that his business is set up perfectly to deliver PPE to small shops such as pharmacies. Robinson said his fleet has over “2,000 pallet spaces free”. He contacted Supply Chain three weeks ago, he said, but has not heard back. “I could have delivered necessary equipment to pharmacies around the country weeks ago,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I think the issue from an NHS perspective is that there just isn’t enough raw materials in the first place.”
But the government insists it has more than enough PPE to serve its healthcare workers, and it is not clear whether its challenge is finding key items or distributing them to those who need it.
COVID-19 is generating unprecedented global demand on the supply chain, especially since China, where the pandemic began, manufactures the vast majority of the world's PPE. And with many governments turning inwards and often ignoring the normal rules of trade, nearly all European countries have at some point reported shortages or challenges procuring PPE.
According to a government source, the UK has ordered over 230 million items of PPE. Three million masks, 40,000 goggles, 6 tons of gowns, and urgent parts for ventilators arrived from China on April 6. Another 1 million gloves, 2,500 face shields, and 20,000 coveralls arrived on the following day. An additional 68 million items are scheduled to arrive before April 13, including masks, faceguards, goggles, gloves, and gowns.
At the government’s daily press briefing on Friday, Hancock said delivering PPE across the country was a “herculean logistical effort”. The health secretary reaffirmed that “there's enough PPE to go around” and said it had been an “enormous challenge”, but that 742 million pieces of protective gear had been delivered so far. “There’s clearly a huge task ahead to keep it flowing and to make sure those who need it, get it,” he added.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said on Saturday that many of its members were still not getting the protective gear they needed and doctors were putting their lives at risk.
Despite the uptick in government’s efforts, procurement data suggests there are concerns over whether the government can meet demand for PPE quickly enough. Since mid-March, several NHS trusts and local councils have been looking at what the private market has to offer, according to data collected by Tussell, which tracks UK government contracts and spending, for BuzzFeed News.
On April 2, University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust enquired about PPE gowns, while North East London NHS Foundation Trust issued a call for Urgent Oxygen concentrators. The next day, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust reached out to the private market about various PPE products. Shropshire Healthcare Procurement has done the same, seeking information on the provision of protective masks as well as thumb loop gowns and coveralls.
The University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust, which launched a competition for PPE on April 1, said it was only gathering information on the marketplace. "This was an information-gathering exercise by the Trust to discover suppliers who may be able to supply and/or manufacture PPE should we need additional supplies in the future,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. The trust said it currently had no shortfalls in supply and has a steady stream coming in. The other trusts did not respond to a request for comment. NHS England told BuzzFeed News that it was aware of at least one hospital trust that put out a call for PPE that was “experimental” — and not an actual procurement — and it’s possible others are doing the same thing.
Several local councils, including Oxfordshire County Council and Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, have launched similar exercises to enquire about PPE for care workers.
There appears to have been no such outreach, competitions, or contracts prior to mid-March, according to the data collected by Tussell.
The country’s train service, Network Rail, has also put out a call for responses from private suppliers who “have additional capacity” in high-quality masks.
Stocks of masks available to the public also appear to be running low. This week, “Safe and Sound” masks were out of stock all week on the Boots’ website.
A Boots spokesperson said: "Where we have been able to source stock of face masks we have been prioritising ensuring our colleagues on the frontline in our stores and logistics operations have access to them first.”