NHS supply chain worker: privatisation has cut equipment quantity and quality

Workers need coronavirus protection, photo USAF/CC

Workers need coronavirus protection, photo USAF/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Terrified staff across the NHS are risking their health and lives treating coronavirus patients without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Barry Boden, an NHS Supply Chain worker, spoke to the Socialist about how privatisation and the pursuit of profit have impacted the shortage of quality PPE.

NHS Supply Chain provides daily medical and non-medical items to hospitals in England and Wales. We were privatised in 2006 and handed over to the multinational courier firm DHL, whose main aim was to make ‘savings’.

Then, in 2018, DHL failed to win the new contract for warehousing and distribution, resulting in a fragmentation into 13 different contracts for procurement, warehouse and distribution, marketing, etc. The biggest was won by Unipart, better known for supplying components to the motor industry.

There’s a managing company, Supply Chain Coordination Ltd, which sets our contracts on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care. But the divisions, and poor planning, have exacerbated the current problems.

Caught out

Preparing for Brexit, our stocks were built up, and new warehouses were opened. Then, in January, management started to reduce our stock levels – right at the time that the Covid-19 outbreak was happening in China! Now we have been completely caught out.

For the last 30 years we’ve been told to use the ‘just-in-time’ principle for supplying NHS trusts and maintaining stock levels in the network. So when there’s a major outbreak, such as now, the system is already at full capacity, and therefore struggles to meet the extra demand.

Austerity has affected our operations, just as it has across the NHS. Cost-cutting has meant less experienced staff and managers, an over-reliance on agency personnel, reduced warehouse maintenance, and an underfunded internal transport system, causing logistic delays in moving stock around the network.

When I started working for NHS Supply Chain, I recall sitting down with a range of medical goods, such as wound dressings, with experienced nurses in front of us giving their clinical opinions, saying ‘that’s good, that’s not good’.

Now the decisions are profit-driven, with much less medical input in the procurement and tendering process. This is part of why the quality of the PPE getting through to frontline staff has been so poor.

Our members have been working longer shifts for the last three months, with some already clocking up 60 extra hours plus in March, to try to provide hospitals with their PPE and normal daily medical requirements.

The PPE for NHS frontline staff has now moved to a third party, under the control of the NHS with the support of the army. But fragmentation, privatisation and a profit-led management have helped to create the current crisis in PPE.

Clinical oversight of equipment procurement must be reinstated. Massive funding for purchasing and manufacturing PPE must be made available now. Privatisation must be scrapped, and NHS Supply Chain brought back in-house, under a fully funded and democratically planned NHS.