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Editor’s Comment: We have the capacity to make PPE – let us use it

Kirsty McGregor

Fashion and textile manufacturers across the UK have the capacity and skills to make much-needed scrubs and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health and social care workers, which makes the current nationwide shortages incredibly frustrating.

Barbour and Burberry are among those producing government-approved PPE in their factories in the north of England. But a number of smaller brands, manufacturers and designers that are ready and willing to provide their services have so far been unable to do so.

The process of becoming accredited to produce government-approved PPE appears to be mired in red tape, even after protocols were relaxed in response to the shortage. Some factory owners report that they filled in the requisite paperwork to volunteer their services weeks ago, but have yet to hear back from the government.

The UK fashion and textiles industry is fragmented and misunderstood by policymakers, which makes it challenging to co-ordinate large-scale relief efforts. Ministers have focused instead on trying to bring in supplies from overseas (hindered by global shortages) and from larger UK manufacturers. As a result, many UK factories remain closed and staff furloughed, despite the evident and pressing need for their services.

Some manufacturers, such as Derbyshire’s David Nieper, have taken matters into their own hands, bypassing the government’s PPE sourcing efforts, and instead working directly with local NHS trusts and care homes to produce what they need.

Similarly, London Fashion Week designers including Richard Quinn, Bethany Williams, Phoebe English and Holly Fulton have also turned their hand to producing lower-level protective clothing, so government-backed PPE can be reserved for the frontline staff dealing first-hand with Covid-19 patients.

But while we can be proud of these individual efforts, pressure is mounting on the government to organise a national approach to address the shortage. Last weekend, Labour’s Rachel Reeves wrote to her counterpart in government, Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove, to highlight concerns that we are not using the capacity of smaller UK manufacturers to make protective clothing.

The government has now appointed Lord Deighton – chief organiser of the 2012 London Olympics – as PPE “tsar” to ensure equipment is distributed quickly and efficiently. Responding to and enlisting smaller fashion and textile manufacturers would be a very good place to start.

 

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