Personal protective equipment companies have revealed problems across the supply chain remain unresolved, with limited stocks available to pass on to GPs and other frontline staff who need it as they fight Covid-19.
PPE distributors and manufacturers are unable to get hold of or make the quantity of items required, as bulk orders placed by some organisations have swept away reserves – with one distributor selling five months’ worth of stock in one day.
Despite new providers of PPE stepping forward to help fill the gaps – or existing ones offering to supply outside their usual customer base, such as to GP practices – some say they have still not heard back from the Government’s new scheme for businesses wanting to help.
Practices may also face difficulties in placing orders directly with new suppliers compared with hospitals or other larger organisations, because they are unable to place bigger orders, which keep costs low.
GPs have been reporting difficulties in sourcing PPE for a number of weeks, with some having to resort to making their own, such as by 3D printing face shields.
A national helpline was set up by the Government for GPs to order replacement PPE, but it is unclear if this is working.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told Pulse that practices were sometimes only receiving half of the number of items they had requested through the helpline, or were not given delivery dates.
He said: ‘When practices do get through to the hotline and are given an indication that they will receive some form of supply, they are not given a date or time as to when that might come. They’re left really worried about whether things are going to be delivered in time and how they can carry on if they don’t get their supplies.’
Meanwhile the Government said this week that on Monday and Tuesday it had delivered over 50 million items to the NHS, including 29.6 million gloves, nine million aprons, 300,000 FFP3 masks, 111,000 gowns, nearly two million surgical masks and 300,000 eye protectors.
But Pulse has spoken with suppliers in the past week that say they continue to encounter issues in providing the items, due to the ongoing increased demand – both nationally and globally.
Leeds-based Dene Healthcare, which distributes products including hand sanitiser and masks to nearly 1,000 GP surgeries nationwide, said it is unable to place orders with its three biggest global manufacturers due to the demand those companies are facing.
Dene Healthcare has managed to use its other suppliers to find new ways of getting hold of some of the items but face masks are still a problem.
Commercial director Craig Arnott said: ‘With over 200 suppliers that we deal with, we’ve managed to keep the products coming in. The only thing we haven’t managed to get sufficient stocks of is FFP3 face masks.’
The company has enlisted the help of a nearby factory that typically produces haircare products, to make hand gel instead.
However, he noted difficult decisions still had to be made.
Mr Arnott added: ‘We are giving it out free of charge to our customers that we’re already in business with. It might sound harsh, but we are trying to look after the surgeries that we already work with.’
Stock selling in unprecedented quantities is the underlying issue, he said: ‘The biggest problem we’ve had is that five months’ worth of stock sold in a few hours, one Monday a few weeks ago.’
Companies which do not typically produce PPE, but have repurposed themselves, are now springing up.
The GP contract allows practices to place PPE orders with suppliers that are not registered with the NHS, but GPs are liable for its standard and need to pay for it unless local arrangements are made.
One manufacturing firm, DisplayMode, based in Corby, has stopped producing point-of-sales displays for Boots and Tesco and is now creating 10,000 units of face shields per day.
It is sending shields to organisations with frontline staff, such as police forces, ambulance trusts and care staff.
In Milton Keynes, manufacturer Plysu Protection Systems (PPS) has taken on extra workers from a group known as The Devil Horsemen – a leading horse supplier for films in Europe, and based nearby.
Managing director Pam Parker brought them on to put their expertise in stitching costumes to use making protective suits and gear.
She said: ‘I’m taking people on just to come and sit in my factory to make stuff.’
PPS previously distributed decontamination shelters and triage shelters – similar to the ones being used in the new Nightingale Hospital – to hospitals only.
In recent weeks, however, it has begun providing PPE directly to clusters of GP surgeries and hospitals nationwide .
But in some cases, firms that have not previously supplied to the NHS and want to use the official route are reporting they have heard nothing back from the Government after applying to its new scheme.
Delayed response times from the Government could be leading to GPs missing out on PPE.
Thai-based solar energy company Helios Energy has provided more than 50 million masks to countries in Europe.
Founder Furat Almurani said he had applied to the UK Government’s scheme three times but did not hear back.
Instead, the company began supplying some items to UK hospitals directly – but had not done the same with GP surgeries, as the company needed to supply in bulk orders of one million units as a minimum to keep costs low.
He said: ‘I don’t see any barriers other than purchasing in the quantity that would keep prices low.’
In NHS England’s daily bulletin update to GP practices yesterday, the organisation’s director of primary care, Dr Nikita Kanani, said additional PPE equipment had now been released to ‘established wholesalers’ to ‘ensure primary care can get hold of supplies through business as usual routes’.
GPs will be hoping this is just one of many ongoing actions being taken to address PPE supply so they can focus on caring for patients, without putting themselves and others at risk.