How CI made a breakthrough in the race to find PPE stocks for the NHS and care sector

20 July 2020


This blog covers activities over a period in time starting the 23rd March 2020 when the UK first went into lock-down and the subsequent 10 weeks thereafter. It covers the small breakthroughs (the highs) and the many frustrations (the lows) of trying to assist and connect verified suppliers of PPE with the many health and care settings that desperately needed and still need them.

The good news, as we head into the middle of June, is that after months of detailed and persistent work, Chamber International together with 2 of its promoted partner suppliers has joined a select group of business organisations and manufacturers registered as approved personal protection equipment (PPE) suppliers to the UK government’s Cabinet Office Covid-19 supplier support website.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chamber International were approached by agents and middlemen introducing many UK and International manufacturers and suppliers of PPE from as far afield as China, India and the USA. The work for CI at this stage was to undertake the necessary ‘due diligence’ of agents, manufacturers and suppliers, to verify product offers and ensure that the specifications were in line with the standards required by the NHS and British government. As I am sure, you can imagine this authentication took time and a lot of patience to check into companies. Many fell by the way side before Chamber International could confidently recommend a shortlist of key suppliers to the NHS and Government.

Also around this time, the Government wanted closer control of PPE supplies, as criticism was building that frontline staff were not getting the protection they deserved. So instead of offers being made to NHS trusts, Chamber International were advised to send supplier offers centrally via the Government’s Cabinet office web portal.

Frustratingly, supplier offers to the portal took much longer than expected to get acknowledged. Indeed it has only been since the middle of May that Chamber International learnt that the Cabinet Office received 18,500 offers of help from business wishing to provide items, ranging from face visors, surgical masks, gloves and gowns to hand sanitizer and disinfectant, as soon as it called for help.

As a market specialist at Chamber International, my original intention had been to locate PPE stocks and suppliers globally and link them to health services around the world. It soon became clear however that the NHS’ need was greater, as the Coronavirus proved increasingly hard to contain and PPE shortages meant healthcare staff were re-using items meant to be used only once.

Helping the government/ NHS and authenticating stocks of PPE soon became a 7 days a week task and something of a ‘personal crusade’. It became clear that Chamber International, with its vast UK and overseas, export-import and manufacturing contacts, could help the national effort to combat the pandemic.

During the course of this work, we found that some companies genuinely wanted to help and had closely-related expertise, making it easier for them to enter the PPE market. Others meanwhile appeared to have changed production to make a quick profit without much thought for quality conformity, consistency or mass production – the essential requirements of procurement officers in NHS, social care and local authority settings.

As our research continued, we identified promising stocks of various PPE items, including specialist surgical masks, hand gel and disinfectants, in China, Holland, and the UK, which we submitted to the Cabinet Office website.

Our expectations were that having spent weeks tailoring suppliers to where the PPE need was greatest, as highlighted every day in the press and during the governments daily Downing Street conferences, Chamber International and its recommended list of suppliers would have their ‘hands bitten off’ to take up these opportunities.

Disappointingly, this was not to be the case! 

One of the key lessons learnt, after chasing up and relationship building with many of the NHS and local authority contacts that Chamber International had made during this time is that the Public sector is run quite differently to the private sector!

Understandably, the NHS has exacting standards for patient and staff safety, and procurement using public funds so, to sift through these offers and prioritise the most promising PPE opportunities, Cabinet Office staff, already working to rigid procurement guidelines, had to scrutinize the manufacturers’ experience and commercial stability, their ability to meet British and EU safety and quality standards, volumes of supply and speed of delivery.

All of this takes a great deal of time.

There are many slow, well-established systems, which are very difficult for an outsider to break into, or understand, without the old-fashioned slog of ‘knocking on doors’ and asking lots of questions, which is what we determined to do.

As the work progressed, we made valuable contacts with an NHS procurement officer in The Midlands, who undertook to recommend Chamber International to the Cabinet office, and started making contacts with local NHS hospitals and trusts in Yorkshire and the North whom we hoped to supply directly.

Eventually our breakthrough came with a welcome telephone call from the Cabinet Office with whom we are now in regular contact. As well as being able to register Chamber International with the Covid-19 supplier website, we have managed to register two of the businesses we have been promoting.

These are:

  • Balthasar Healthcare, Amsterdam, Holland; offering Surgical Type 2R masks to NHS specifications
  • IWS, International Water Solutions Ltd, Romford, Essex, offering MYDIS non-alcohol hand gel and a fogging disinfectant, which has been proven scientifically to be effective against Covid-19.

In addition, both IWS and pharmaceutical + medical supplies company, Cure Pharma, based at Thorp Arch Trading Estate, a Chamber International client, have also been registered through Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership onto the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation list of verified PPE suppliers, which can be accessed by all local authorities within Leeds City Region.

Finally and bringing the story right up to date, following frequent discussions with their deputy head of procurement,  Chamber International have secured two outstanding opportunities to supply Type 2R surgical masks and surgical gowns, to Leeds & York Partnership NHS Trust and are anticipating a positive response to progress supplies.

Unfortunately, in view of the rapid spread of the pandemic, quick, risk-taking decisions about suppliers to fill PPE shortfalls are not part of the NHS and public sector procurement cultures.

Decisions about new suppliers are taken only after exhaustive research and verification work has been undertaken.

Despite some delays, I’m still optimistic that our extensive work in unearthing and targeting key contacts within government, NHS, Social Care and local authority settings will result in one of our recommended companies being contracted to supply quantities of PPE where it is still urgently needed.


By David Attia (pictured right), Senior Associate at Chamber International. 

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      Chamber International - David Attia