We need coordination. It’s time for a cabinet minister for PPE delivery

Steve Turner

One week on from our ‘call to arms’ in support of ramping up the production of personal protective equipment, our UK army of manufacturers – including hundreds of companies and thousands of workers – are rising to the challenge. They want to ensure that those risking their lives on a daily basis have the proper PPE they need to protect themselves.

From Barbour to Jaguar Land Rover, the Royal Mint to Shell, and Aston Martin to BAE Systems, household names have released stock, provided and produced raw materials, designed, shaped, cut and assembled everything from face masks to visors, googles and medical gowns to gloves, hand sanitiser to deep cleansing materials. It is a tremendous effort, uniting workers and employers in delivering essential support for essential workers.

But as we hear daily, even hourly, workers are still not getting the protective equipment that they need. Our posties, social care and NHS staff, construction and bus workers, this week all sounded the alarm. They are on the front line, keeping people safe and the country running – yet where is the kit that they desperately need?

The problem is that we have built an army but they have no general. What’s missing in this heroic national effort is that necessary voice of government, the call from the front, the coordination and collaboration of the army that can only come from the centre.

Like the generals of the First World War directing the troops from the safety of a horseback far from the front, we now see a failure to lead from the front from today’s generals in cabinet. As Unite’s Bobby Morton said about the desperate need for an adequate supply of PPE for bus drivers, as it was revealed that 14 transport workers have lost their lives: “I’m not asking, I’m demanding”. That is the message coming out of workplaces across the country. It must be heard in Whitehall.

We encounter competing interests, factional and departmental tensions and disjointed messages when what is desperately needed right now – not tomorrow or next week – is for government to act as one in the national interest.

The most effective way to cut through this dysfunction would be for the PM – or in his absence, the cabinet – to appoint a Minister for Testing and Personal Protective Equipment Procurement. This minister – reporting directly to the PM – would have overarching responsibility for bringing together the ministries of government, to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape, a minister to join up the dots, make decisions with authority and clout. Someone who can simply get things done.

The first item in their in-tray would be the creation of one central hub to link together those registering interest, capabilities and capacity. A central team to put suppliers in touch with producers, CAD designers working alongside engineers, ensuring raw materials get where they’re needed and that designs and technical specifications are released under temporary licence to those who can ramp up production.

We have the equipment, skills and workforce to meet the challenge. But we will need central distribution of the final product to those workers across our economy who desperately need it – from frontline health and social care workers to bus drivers, warehouse workers and refuse collectors, from retail workers to delivery drivers.

Government needs to move fast because its continued absence from the scene is undermining the spirit and capacity of the nation to step up at our time of need. Of course local companies will support local hospitals, care homes and hospices, but our collective will – our desire to step up and mass produce by the million what we need to meet our needs on a national scale – will be lost.

With the best will in the world, those working so hard and with a passion to pull this national effort together don’t currently have the resources to do so. I listened yesterday to the incredible tailor in Glasgow, turning out scrubs for the NHS from an empty shop in the east end of the city, who had put his hands in his own pocket to begin with and is now crowdfunding to pay for the materials. There are dedicated individuals like them the length and breadth of the country, but they’re working in isolation.

And I don’t want to speak to a single other manufacturer who tells me that they are determined and ready to make PPE but their calls are not returned by government, their offers go ignored, and that they feel that they are talking to a brick wall.

We can do this. Just look at the rapid delivery on the ventilator challenge to get 10,000 medical ventilators and other breathing support supplies into our hospitals. The heroic efforts of Airbus, Rolls-Royce, McLaren, Siemens and GKN have been matched by hundreds of others in the race to defend the UK from this unseen enemy by offering their support to the PPE Challenge. Daily messages from workers furloughed and companies laying idle, all offering their support, to reopen their plants, bring back their workforce and step up to the challenge make me very proud of Unite’s incredible members doing their bit to keep the country safe.

We’ve seen a fantastic response from the design and technology departments in our schools, colleges and universities to heroic efforts of artisans with 3D printers in garden sheds. From the largest manufacturers ramping up production – such as our fantastic members at 3M working 24/7 to get face masks to the frontline – to the East Midlands textile companies providing the raw materials and switching production to aprons and gowns.

But the call now is for government to bring its skills to the table. We need its powers of coordination and procurement. We need the leadership of the state to ensure that the dedication of this volunteer manufacturing army is focused and clear on how we collectively deliver on this shared mission. Above all, we need that minister for PPE to be behind their virtual desk by the weekend, pulling together the unions, industry and the government departments. We’re ready when you are, minister.

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