- The UK is running out of protective equipment for medics and care staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
- However, businesses say the UK health department has been too slow in responding to their offers.
- One source in Liverpool told Business Insider that the government missed out on an opportunity to secure 10 million masks from him due to its slow response.
- A source at an Italian company also says they are still waiting to hear back on their offer to donate hand sanitizer.
- A UK government spokesperson said: “We are working rapidly to get through these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”
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Suppliers say the UK government is missing out on securing basic protective equipment for the coronavirus outbreak because it is taking too long to respond to their offers.
British hospitals and care homes have reported severe shortages of basic protective equipment, also known as PPE, such as masks and gowns.
But Volker Schuster, a Liverpool-based supplier to the building and construction industry, said the government’s slow response to his offer of 10 million face masks meant they went to other countries instead.
Schuster, who owns chemicals firm EcoLogix, told Business Insider he got in touch with the Department for Health & Social Care on March 26 saying that he was in contact with a European supplier ready to provide 10 million face masks on April 1.
He filled in an online form detailing the number of face masks he had available, as well as their technical specifications, and submitted it to the department.
Later that day, he received an automated email from a no-reply address acknowledging receipt of his form. The email also did not contain any other contact details for the government.
That was the correspondence he received from the government for days, Schuster said. Later that week he contacted his local MP – Labour’s Bill Esterson – who emailed the details of Schuster’s face masks to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
But even after that, Schuster didn’t hear from the government for days.
“I heard absolutely nothing either in response to the form or in response to Bill Esterson’s email to Hancock’s office,” Schuster told Business Insider. “No calls, no emails, nothing.”
“Then at 6 p.m. on March 31, five days after I filled in the form, I got an email saying they had acknowledged the form and they’d get back to me if they needed me, so to speak,” he said.
Despite this, Schuster said the Department for Health & Social Care did not contact him asking to take him up on the offer until April 2 – a day after the proposed delivery date and after the supplier had already sold the masks to other countries.
The department had also asked him for technical details about the masks, which he said he had already provided.
By then, the supplier had already sold the masks to other governments, including Germany.
“The timing was essential,” Schuster told Business Insider. “The fact they sent an email asking for info the day after the proposed delivery date felt like a token email to cover their backs.”
Esterson, the MP for Sefton Central, told Business Insider: “It cannot be right that companies which can help with PPE and which have offered to help are facing long delays in hearing back from the government.
“My constituent, Mr Schuster, could have helped many of our health and social care staff if an effective system had been in place. People are dying and this needs to be simplified and speeded up.
“The government should have a dedicated procurement system for the duration of the crisis so that our brilliant businesses can help deal with the coronavirus crisis.”
No response to hand sanitizer offer
An employee at an Italian company, which has produced hand sanitizer for other governments during the coronavirus pandemic, said they had also been in touch with the UK government early last week with an offer to donate sanitizer.
However, the source – who wished to remain anonymous – told Business Insider that the company, at the time of writing, had not heard back from the Department of Health & Social Care since providing details of their products.
Both this employee and Schuster said the government’s system for submitting offers was confusing.
Both filled in the form twice after not immediately receiving a confirmation email on the first occasion. The source at the Italian company said they have since received calls from three different people working for the goverment, all asking them to provide the same details.
Other people and businesses have reported similar hurdles in trying to offer PPE to the government.
Last week, The Guardian reported that several textile companies said the UK government had been too slow in responding to their offers to produce PPE for protecting key workers from the COVID-19 virus.
Kate Hills, founder of business group Make It British, told the newspaper that Boris Johnson’s government ignoring lesser-known textiles companies to focus on high-profile manufacturers.
“They’re just picking out brand names,” Hills said.
“The people who can make this PPE are not well-known names, they are contract manufacturers behind the scenes. They have filled in the government’s request forms and heard nothing back.”
A Government spokesperson told Business Insider: “We are incredibly grateful for over 8,000 offers of support from suppliers as part of the national effort to ensure that appropriate PPE is reaching the frontline. “We are working rapidly to get through these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”
Hancock told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that the UK government had received thousands of offers from suppliers and was working with 159 manufacturers to secure PPE.
However, he added that the department had turned down offers from companies which could not produce equipment “in scale.”
“We are always looking to improve the processes we have in place for purchases,” he said.
“We have had to make sure we sort out the credible offers from those which are not. There has to be some process in there… Nevertheless, we want to engage with all of those companies which can help us in that national effort. And we are accelerating that process of getting back to those companies with a response to their offer.”