Why Arco is right to be concerned about 'serious flaws' in procurement of PPE for health workers - Greg Wright

YOU’RE a Cabinet minister facing the biggest public health crisis in more than a century.

Thomas Martin provided evidence to Parliament this week
Thomas Martin provided evidence to Parliament this week

Frontline health workers are desperate to source robust personal protective equipment (PPE) as quickly as possible.

Who do you phone first?

Bosses at Arco ought to have been on speed dial for every minister during the height of the pandemic because they could have provided world class PPE products and no-nonsense advice about how to halt the pandemic’s lethal advance. When it came to fighting disease, Arco was a known quantity.

Founded in 1884, the Hull-based company has its own product assurance lab and a 400,000 sq ft distribution centre, and played a leading role in fighting both SARS and Ebola.

Last year, when the company tried to reach out to the Government to help supply PPE, it faced frustrations which are hard to understand.

The company was so concerned about the delays it faced that it has provided a series of recommendations to ensure the country is better prepared in any future pandemic.

The obstacles faced by Arco are made painfully clear in the report by Thomas Martin, the company’s chairman, who gave evidence to Parliament this week.

“During the peak of the crisis there were too many reports of hospital and care workers left with insufficient masks, gloves and gowns and often without any equipment at all,’’ he said.

“At the same time, suppliers holding stocks were unable to get an indication from the Government of where their PPE was most needed, and then non-compliant stock had to be identified, isolated and replaced: often by ourselves as our expertise was accessed too late.”

In the end, Arco dealt directly with more than 290 NHS Trusts to supply urgently needed PPE and other protective equipment, as the central supply chains were oversubscribed with products “not suitable for the job”.

To quote Mr Martin: “The National Audit Office report on the Investigation into Government Procurement during the Covid-19 Pandemic has uncovered situations where contracts for the provision of PPE were awarded to organisations with no history of PPE manufacture or supply, who were ultimately unable to fulfil orders, and who supplied non-compliant products that increased, rather than mitigated, the risk to wearers.

“There were serious flaws in how public bodies sourced protective equipment, and difficulties in coordinating the strategic distribution of PPE at the national level. Much tax-payers money was wasted, and we expect further examples to surface as the enquiries continue.”

Mr Martin believes the Government must recognise and tackle the gaps in the product safety and surveillance system. He is concerned the Government may be creating a culture of “low-effort, low-quality provision at a time when we should be focusing on scaling up manufacturing capacity and on-shoring our PPE sector”.

Mr Martin is calling on the Government to create a registration process for competent PPE suppliers. He wants the Government to clarify how the PPE stockpile was assessed at the start of the crisis, particularly from the perspective of supply chain risk.

The Government said it issued a public call to action to support the increased requirements for PPE, resulting in more than 24,000 offers of support from around 15,000 suppliers.

Credible offers of PPE came from a variety of leads and all leads, no matter from what channel, went through the same eight step process, including volume and lead times, quality checks, price controls and other due diligence, the spokesman said.

“We have delivered over 11 billion items of PPE to protect our frontline workers and, as the NAO report recognised, all NHS providers they spoke to were able to get the equipment they needed in time.”

The fact remains that Arco, a globally recognised safety company, faced what it described as a “disorientating and frustrating situation” when it tried to help the Government save lives.

The flaws outlined in its report must be confronted. Supply chain transparency must be of paramount importance.

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