Thomas Martin, Chairman, of Arco, the UK's leading safety company, appeared before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in Parliament today to give evidence to the inquiry into "Government procurement and supply of personal protective equipment" during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the hearing, Thomas Martin highlighted Arco's credentials, its expertise and capability in procuring and distributing PPE that was compliant with the correct safety standards and that was ethically sourced. He outlined the company's frustration in the procurement system set up by the Government at the start of the pandemic, and explained how Arco went on to respond directly to approaches from NHS trusts for critical PPE. Looking forward, Thomas articulated the learnings from the last year and made key recommendations for future pandemic preparedness, urging the Government to uphold the UK's high safety standards.
Commenting after the session, Thomas Martin said:
"We were proud to do our part as a constructive partner to the NHS, to central government and to the care system across the UK. We know that the PPE procurement structures have been through an unprecedented level of stress over the past year - for us, this meant frustration at times, and led to otherwise avoidable complications.
"Throughout, our focus has been on - and remains - supplying the highest quality PPE to support the delivery of the pandemic response, and we hope that our insights into our experiences in doing so can help build a more resilient structure as Covid recedes and we prepare for the next potential pandemic."
"We understand that DHSC and its partners had to build a new system from scratch and scale it up at pace - but unfortunately doesn't offset the fact that the central PPE supplier portal did not function as intended. We saw situations whereby we knew that we had stock that was needed but received no response to offers and no central guidance about where it should be directed - with incredibly limited and sporadic uptake of those offers we did make."
"With our track record in supporting public health responses to serious outbreaks (including Ebola, SARS and Foot and Mouth), this was a disorientating and frustrating situation for us. While we were able to offer our support more broadly across the NHS and Social Care systems directly, at a time when there was a clear demand for huge volumes of protective equipment, it seemed unusual that we were not able to provide more support than we did."
"Much has been made of VIP lanes and influence over the past few weeks - all we know is that we had a constructive relationship with commercial contacts across Government, and offered our services as a market leading expert provider. Like many trapped in the system, we attempted to reach out to those holding the levers across Whitehall, but without success. Fast-tracks and Ministerial lanes are as much news to us as to the rest of the UK - we certainly did not benefit from any special arrangements."
Given its expertise, Arco felt a responsibility to share its experiences of the PPE procurement system during 2020, with a view to contributing to an improved response in any similar situation in the future. Arco published a Position Paper: Personal Protective Equipment and the Government's Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, which offers insight into its own experiences dealing with Government bodies and other agencies as part of the PPE supply chain. It proposes a 10-point set of recommendations to prevent a repeat of the high-profile issues that were seen during the first wave of the crisis and to ensure the country is better protected in any future pandemic.
The report recognises that hundreds of millions of pounds has been wasted on poor quality PPE that cannot be used for the intended purpose.
Arco has also urged Government to consult on requiring PPE suppliers to formally register to supply Category II and III products - which would ensure that a supplier is capable of providing compliant product - while also intensifiying market surveillance by an empowered OPSS to ensure suppliers live up to their paper commitments.
Thomas Martin further commented:
"You can do PPE procurement in a cost, effective, safe way. But you must not do it on the cheap. We are disappointed to hear that defective product made it into our PPE ecosystem over the past year - and even more so that it made it into the hands of front-line NHS workers. Government must recognise the gaps in the product safety and surveillance system and move to tackle them before we bed in a culture of low-effort, low-quality provision at a time when we should be focussing on scaling up manufacturing capacity and on-shoring our PPE sector."
"The UK is well recognised globally for its expertise in this area - we have an opportunity to lead the world in bringing home PPE manufacturing and keep standards high in doing so. We are glad that the National Audit Office (NAO) is looking closely into these failures, and I hope that the PAC and central government will look seriously at the culture that we are allowing to flourish."
With over 135 years of safety experience, its own UKAS-accredited product assurance lab and a 400,000 sqft National Distribution Centre, Hull-based Arco has been at the forefront of the most significant recent global emergencies, including the response to both SARS and Ebola outbreaks. When the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in the UK, the company played a key role in the response, navigating the global supply chain restrictions that led to an international shortage of certain types of PPE, to provide critical PPE to key industries and the frontline.