UK cancels pioneering scheme to fit protective clothing to environmental goals

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Britain has abandoned a £75m plan to make vital items of reusable protective clothing to guard against a second wave of Covid-19, denting hopes of concerted government action to promote sustainable manufacturing, and triggering dismay among industry observers.

  • UK cancels pioneering scheme to fit protective clothing to environmental goals
  • How a green manufacturing model fell apart
  • Life-saving clothing delivers a mountain of waste
  • A sager stance on health hardware
Above: Protective gowns are mostly discarded after one use, adding to the UK’s waste mountain

The millions of protective gowns for health workers would have come from UK factories and could have been reused up 100 times each.

Most protective garments are imported from low-cost nations and discarded after one wearing, conflicting with environmental goals.

But three months of talks between industry representatives and the Cabinet Office – responsible for key government policies – have ground to a halt after officials failed to agree the details of the scheme.

Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, representing manufacturers, designers and suppliers, said: “There had been a fantastic opportunity for the government to tap into Britain’s technical expertise on textiles to set up a sustainable supply of reusable gowns made in the UK. The way the government has handled this project has been poor and says little for its commitment to help UK manufacturing.”

Yvette Ashby, chief executive of the Professional Clothing Industry Association Worldwide, a London-based trade body, said: “The people working on this [in the Cabinet Office] appear to have little understanding of how the textile industry works. Their approach has sometimes appeared chaotic. A lot of people from industry are pretty frustrated with the lack of response.”

Since the scheme would have safeguarded jobs in UK textiles businesses, many of which are in economically depressed regions, it would have supported Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” theme. In this the prime minister has talked about helping poorer regions catch up with the rest of the UK during an anticipated economic rebound.

The discussions ended after officials realised that, following protracted delays in agreeing the scheme, many individual health trusts had placed their own local orders for gowns, reducing the need for a centralised project.

Many of the gowns topping up local supplies are imported and disposable. Local efforts fail to capture the economies of scale and adherence to rigid quality standards that a centralised programme would have entailed.

The UK has more than 200 health trusts organising regional services in conjunction with centralised parts of the National Health Service and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The failure of the talks has sparked disquiet at two big companies that were to have played a big part in the scheme – online retailer Asos and the UK arm of Japanese textiles producer Toray. Asos would have acted as project manager, organising production of up to 5m gowns over a year from a network of UK plants, while Toray would have supplied most of the specialised fabric needed for the gowns from a plant near Nottingham.

Toray’s factory in Mansfield would have played a key part in the project

At the peak of the pandemic protective gowns were required in enormous numbers in hospitals yet were in short supply. Deficiencies across all types of personal protective equipment are regarded as one reason for Britain’s high death rate.The ending of the talks – in which the Deloitte consultancy supported the Cabinet Office – has not been announced by the government.

After being criticised early in the pandemic for slow progress in addressing PPE shortages, ministers and officials have been keen to demonstrate its efforts are gaining traction.

On June 25, the DHSC said it had ordered from UK and overseas suppliers some 28bn PPE items to tackle coronavirus, as “part of herculean cross-government effort to future-proof supply chains”. About 2bn of the items would be made in the UK, according to a previous announcement in May. By the end of 2020, “around 20 per cent” of all PPE used in Britain would be manufactured domestically, the DHSC has said.

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Date: 10 August 2020