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'I had to bypass NHS to make PPE for hospitals'

david nieper staff wearing nhs scrubs ppe

Christopher Nieper, CEO of womenswear brand and manufacturer David Nieper, explains how he responded to local hospitals’ needs for gowns and scrubs. 

Christopher nieper

David Nieper, CEO, Christopher Nieper

Our family business has certainly weathered some storms over the past almost 60 years we’ve been trading, both economic and political. Nothing has come close to the outbreak of Covid-19, which has threatened not only our livelihoods, but our entire way of life.

Almost a month ago, as the virus escalated, our first reaction was to help. We were among the first fashion manufacturers to offer assistance and to switch our production to create personal protective equipment (PPE).

We usually make womenswear, but volunteered to make surgical gowns, medical uniforms and scrubs – whatever we could to help the national effort and support the amazing army of doctors and nurses on the frontline.

Our company has more than 300 staff who design and manufacture clothes in Britain, as well as the facilities to send a quarter of a million packages all over the world each year. All of this was put at the disposal of the NHS.

We were faced with a huge, centralised administrative blockage that prevented us from serving our healthcare heroes

I’m sure I speak on behalf of manufacturers across the UK, when I say that offering to make PPE for the NHS is easier said than done. We were faced with a huge, centralised administrative blockage that prevented us from serving our healthcare heroes.

In the subsequent weeks, like all other British manufacturers, we brought in measures to protect our people – our fashion events were postponed, staff were set up to work from home, and many were furloughed.

However, all along it has been our greatest wish to get back to work and support the NHS. How difficult could it be to help in a meaningful way and get PPE to where it was needed? The answer is much more difficult than we ever imagined. For weeks, our efforts have been frustrated by the slow, centralised procurement system.

My first conversation about supplying the NHS was on 16 March. Since then, I have been contacted by NHS Supply Chain Coordination, Deloitte, the Crown Commercial Service [which provides commercial services to the public sector] and the government – but frustratingly, none of these discussion have amounted to anything.

It became apparent to me that the centralised NHS governance is simply not agile enough to react effectively in a crisis. So, while becoming more and more frustrated, we took the decision to sidestep the bureaucracy, bypass the central system and began a dialogue with our local hospitals.

David Nieper making PPE for NHS hospitals

The David Nieper factory is making PPE for NHS hospitals

In doing so, I’m delighted to say we have been able to break through the red tape that was preventing us from making progress and getting equipment to our doctors and nurses.

We secured an order earlier this month to supply directly to nine East Midlands hospitals through local NHS trusts. We’ve cut and graded patterns for surgical scrubs and gowns, and we’ve made prototypes for the hospitals to approve.

We’ve sourced, bought and had delivered 12,500 metres of fabric and a volunteer team worked over the Easter holiday, cutting the first 1,000 garments ready to start sewing. And we were delighted to welcome furloughed staff back to work this week.

A volunteer team worked over the Easter holiday, cutting the first 1,000 garments ready to start sewing

We very much hope this new approach proves to be groundbreaking in that local suppliers will be able to serve their local hospital services without delay.

Over the last few years, our company has been working to reshore our supply chain and keep manufacturing local – primarily because it is much more sustainable to manufacture in the UK. The recent turn of events makes this even more pertinent.

In business, we are moving towards a new age of localisation with community at its heart. So, as we carry on riding this wave for the weeks and months ahead, we find strength at home and in our local communities.

The virus will eventually lose its grip and we need to be ready to heal and rebuild. By staying local and supporting each other, we can prevail in business, in community, and in all of our well-being. 

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