Getting supplies to key staff proved a logistical challenge like no other, Philip Aldrick writes
Tony Mannix, the boss of Clipper Logistics, remembers Sunday March 22 for two reasons. It was Mother’s Day, the eve of the lockdown, and it was the day he received the call that dragged him into the Covid-19 fightback. The call came from an industry contact of his, Neil Ashworth, a civilian working in the British Army’s Engineering and Logistics Staff Corps and a former supply chain director at Tesco.
Mr Mannix had been told that the Ministry of Defence was looking for a company to help distribute personal protective equipment to the health service. By then the provision of PPE was in crisis. Shortages were terrifying health workers and shaming politicians, who were struggling to pull a pandemic response plan together.
The government was in the midst of pivoting from its herd immunity strategy, first flagged on March 11, to lockdown. Modelling by Imperial College London published on March 16 had suggested that herd immunity would cost 250,000 lives and raised the prospect of the NHS being unable to cope.
Ventilator shortages became the immediate focus of attention and, on March 17, the Cabinet Office put out an emergency call to British industry. The other big concern was a lack of PPE and the risk that health service workers might be sent into the coronavirus war without protection — “throwing them to the wolves” as staff would later describe it. By the end of the week the government had moved a long way. Safety was paramount, the herd immunity strategy was ditched and the slogan “Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” had been created.
The army had been drafted in to assist with PPE delivery in late February and soon realised that the supply chain was being overwhelmed. To ease delivery pressures, the directors developed a plan but it needed the political sign-off. With the government struggling to keep up, no decisions were being made.