Executive Ministers have been urged to urgently review how Northern Ireland procures its personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers and establish a local PPE supply chain.
The Londonderry Chamber of Commerce has written to Finance Minister Conor Murphy MLA, Health Minister Robin Swann MLA, and Economy Minister Diane Dodds MLA urging the Executive to adopt a new and sustainable strategy for procuring PPE which is more secure, readily available, and develops stronger supply chains locally, creating thousands of jobs in the process.
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, over 450 NI companies repurposed their operations to meet serious PPE shortages within the health service, including several North West-based firms. While Northern Ireland has now passed the first peak of the virus, it has become clear that much higher levels of PPE, on a much more frequent basis, will be necessary for thousands of front-line workers across the health service as well as other sectors in the economy.
Paul Clancy, Chief Executive, Derry Chamber said: “Covid-19 exposed serious problems in how Northern Ireland sources and procures its PPE stocks. When the virus looked like it might possibly overwhelm our health service, there was a scramble to get equipment from halfway across the world. While we are rightly proud of local companies like O’Neills, Bloc Blinds, Nuprint and many others who pivoted their businesses to ensure our doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals had the PPE they needed, the Executive now needs to put in place a comprehensive strategy which will ensure we have a strong, secure and consistent stream of PPE.
“As this virus naturally peaks and troughs, and until a vaccine is developed, PPE will become a feature of daily life. With the economy and other sectors of our society gradually reopening, PPE will be used by a wider section of frontline workers than just our healthcare staff. However, it is not sustainable for Northern Ireland to continue to get its protective equipment from countries like China when we need a more readily available supply chain closer to home.
“Local companies have proven that they have the expertise and skills to fulfil these orders, but they need support from government and assurances that they can win significant public procurement contracts before they commit to the long-term investment and permanently reconfiguring their business operations.
“A local PPE supply chain could also create thousands of highly-skilled, more secure jobs, at a time when we are entering a deep recession and redundancies are very likely. It would also reward companies who stepped up to the challenge at the start of the pandemic and give them long-term, secure contracts to manufacture crucial equipment for our frontline workers.
“Northern Ireland, and the North West in particular, has a highly-skilled manufacturing and textiles base which would only too happily take part in this supply chain. Other countries like Scotland quickly created local supply chains at the start of this crisis, prioritising and calling on local companies to provide the vast bulk of their long-term PPE stocks. This benefits frontline workers by providing sustainable and high-quality PPE but also supports our regional economic recovery and has the potential to create thousands of jobs.
“We are urging Executive Ministers to work on a cross-departmental basis to set up a Northern Ireland PPE supply chain which ensures we have a constant stock of protective equipment for our frontline workers, supports firms which have been significantly impacted by Covid-19, and provides new and highly-skilled jobs at a time of unprecedented economic upheaval.”