How the UK's Much Maligned Manufacturers Came to the Rescue When the UK Needed PPE

Paul Wilson

From Men's Health

Even by the standards of the COVID-19 world, condensing a three-month process into three days is quite an achievement. That’s how long it took the Cookson & Clegg factory in Blackburn to switch from making premium British clothing to scrub sets for NHS staff.

Patrick Grant is managing director and co-owner of the factory. (He also runs the menswear labels E Tautz and Norton & Sons, and is a judge on the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee.) In early March, just before the UK was locked down, NHS suppliers called him in desperate need of PPE after the closure of factories overseas. It usually takes about 12 weeks for a product to go from pitch to production, but these are unprecedented times.

“Technical specifications for the scrubs were delivered to us on a Tuesday morning,” Grant says. “We made the samples by Tuesday afternoon. They were inspected and signed off on Wednesday morning at about 10am. At about 3pm, bulk fabric arrived from the manufacturer, about 15 miles away in Chorley. It was forklifted off the back of the lorry and straight into the cutting room. By Friday afternoon, the first of the bulk scrub sets were coming off our production line.”

Very quickly, the factory was making 2,000 items of scrubs per week (1,000 tops and 1,000 bottoms). Before all this, it was making about 300 pieces of five or six items of clothing a week, for high-end British brands such as Nigel Cabourn, HebTroCo, Drake’s and Finisterre. Since starting with scrubs, it has moved into making face coverings. When Men’s Health spoke to Grant in early May, 131,000 masks per week were coming off the production line.

“Obviously, there is a lot less sewing in a face covering than there is in a Cabourn Antarctic parka,” he says, “but still, it’s been a complete change in the way we operate this factory.”

Disruption and a more urgent recognition of hours in the day (too many for some; too few for others) are part of everybody’s pandemic experience. For Grant, the upheaval has meant increasing his workforce by 50%, borrowing machines and using capacity in other factories. It is a part of a swift and vital transformation for many British factories working during the pandemic. Those that could get supplies and adapt to social distancing began working for the national benefit.

“I know that pretty much every sewing factory in the UK is making something they wouldn’t normally be making,” says Grant. “It’s a very, very difficult situation. All I can say is that the people I have been working with inside the civil service have been pretty amazing.”

Other businesses have had a more difficult transition to new ways of working. Jim Griffin, managing director of Interflex in Nottinghamshire, contacted the BBC to highlight the difficulties that he faced in turning his automotive parts manufacturing business into a maker of PPE. After furloughing 40 of his 45 staff in March, it was frustrating for Griffin and others like him to see stories of the lack of PPE when British firms able to address the shortfall had not been asked to do so.

“It was hard,” says Griffin, “but I understand also that the NHS and government had 8,000 SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] trying to talk to them.” Channels of communication eventually opened, Griffin brought back about half of his workforce, and now Interflex is making visors and aprons, with face masks and gowns coming soon. A face-mask-making machine was ordered from China, but otherwise, the new ways of working were not so different from the old.

“We are a converter of materials, taking materials from one state to another,” says Griffin, “and that’s what we’re doing now. We were a busy, profitable company before all this, working in shifts, so now we’re taking the opportunity to work a different shift pattern.”

At Staeger Clear Packaging, managing director Ian Jamie buys waste plastic from the UK recycling chain to make packaging for food and toiletries, much of it going to travel retail goods firms and chocolatiers. The March-May period is usually his quiet time, so when the chance to make PPE arose, his firm jumped at it. “If it hadn’t been for the PPE, I would have had to close the business down and furloughed everybody,” he says.

Like Griffin, Jamie feels that in this crisis time, British factories could be employed more centrally to make vital PPE supplies. Staeger Clear is supplying 200,000 visors per week to the NHS, but Jamie knows of two NHS suppliers that between them are sourcing close to 50 million visors a month from two Chinese suppliers. And that's just a fraction of the total market.

“We need to start making and buying essential supplies in the UK. We can do it, I guarantee that. Any PPE we need, without the shipping costs. At the moment, we’re flying things over from China at a huge cost. I have a feeling that lots of other countries are going to look inward for the solution to this, and that would be the right thing to do. We need to strategically look at this when things settle down.”

Nothing is settled at present. All three MDs are working six and sometimes seven days a week to adapt their production, meet changing demands and keep their workforces safe. They all see PPE in their businesses’ medium- and even long-term futures. They all see an opportunity to protect and potentially create employment at a time when other sectors of the UK economy will suffer job losses.

“There is an extraordinary need for things that we are making now,” says Grant, “and you can see a situation where we go back to normality after all this. But if we look at it top-down, to see what will have the greatest net benefit for the entire economy and society, and to make us more resilient in crises in the future, it’s about having production capacity onshore, not buying everything overseas.” Our future health, as individuals, societies and even the human race, could depend on it.

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