The Londonderry Chamber recently wrote to and engaged with local politicians and Ministers to raise concerns over the local production and procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). The Covid-19 crisis quickly exposed serious problems in the way NI produces and procures its PPE stock. As it became clear that frontline healthcare workers did not have adequate and safe levels of PPE available to them, there was a scramble to buy items of PPE from all around the world.
Stocks of PPE proved extremely difficult to procure when many other countries were also fighting to obtain huge levels of it at the same time. In Northern Ireland, local companies like O’Neill’s, Nuprint, Ascot Signs and Bloc Blinds went to extraordinary lengths to get PPE to frontline workers when its availability was not guaranteed. A local PPE supply chain was established quickly to plug many gaps.
Going forward, it is clear that a much higher and more consistent stock of PPE will be needed for frontline workers in a range of different sectors and industries. In July, the Chamber met with party spokespeople for the economy, finance, and health, to raise the issue of creating a local and resilient PPE supply chain. After gaining the support of Economy Committee Chair and deputy Chair Caoimhe Archibald MLA and Sinead McLaughlin MLA, Health Committee Chair and deputy Chair Colm Gildernew MLA and Pam Cameron MLA, and Finance Committee Chair and deputy Chair Steve Aiken MLA and Paul Frew MLA, the Chamber wrote to the Health, Finance, and Economy Ministers to raise the issue. Chamber also met with representatives from Invest NI, at the request of the Economy Minister, to speak about the issue.
Last week, the NI Assembly’s Research and Information Service, after being commissioned to do so by the Finance Committee, published a 16-page research paper into the Chamber’s proposals and requests for support. In particular, this paper looks into the Scottish Government’s ‘Make and Buy’ strategy, which establishes contracts between NHS Scotland and a number of Scottish-based companies will strengthen and expand the supply of PPE in Scotland to help secure long-term stock levels.
As well as proposing a number of potential scrutiny points which the Committee may wish to delve deeper into, the report concludes:
“It may safely be assumed that the NI demand for PPE has increased by a broadly similar proportion to Scotland during Covid-19. Data published by the Department of Health state that between 6 March and 31 July, the NI Health and Social Care systems Procurement and Logistics Service delivered more than 167 million items of PPE to NI health and social care services.46 There have clearly been challenges in Scotland and also in NI.”
“The Committee will, no doubt, be encouraged to hear that a local business (i.e. Armstrong Medical) has been identified as strategically important in the Scottish medical devices supply chain. It is also of note that firms in Scotland have been rehoming manufacture from overseas or investing, with Scottish Government support, in new machinery.”
“It would be of great interest for the Committee to hear whether such investment has been coordinated strategically across these islands, particularly in relation to the economic need to support jobs and businesses in the current downturn. In addition, it would be helpful to learn whether there has been strategic coordination in terms of ensuring adequate local supply of PPE, given such supply is likely to be impacted by the return of workers to the office and of schools this autumn, e.g. teachers and other school staff, along with pupils, needing various PPE items to protect themselves and others.”
On behalf of the Finance Committee, the briefing paper has been forwarded to Invest NI and the Economy Minister and Committee, the NI Audit Office to contribute to its ongoing review of the response into Covid-19, and the Finance Committee Chair has written to the Economy and Health Ministers to “outline the lessons learnt from the Scottish approach and to emphasise the resilience required, not only in Northern Ireland but across these islands, in order to have the capacity to meet the demands for PPE in the future.”
The Chamber is working hard to raise this issue at the highest levels of the NI Executive and relevant agencies, and will continue to press the issue with local representatives. By creating a local supply chain of locally produced, locally procured, and readily available PPE, we can support businesses who have seen their operations slow down during this crisis but also ensure that we have a deeper and easily accessible stock of equipment for our healthcare workers and other frontline staff.