The revamped scheme comes after the demise of an earlier effort led by the Cabinet Office and Department of Health and Social Care to organise domestic production of PPE, following serious shortages in the early stages of the pandemic that contributed to the UK’s high initial death toll.
The new project is relatively modest in that it involves just one company - London-based Fashion Enter - which is making small quantities of gowns for testing by National Health Service experts to ensure they can withstand repeated, intensive washing. Most gowns used in the NHS and in other health fields such as dentistry are imported from countries including China and worn once.
The DHSC said it was “committed to putting in place a UK supply chain” for reusable gowns. “Positive discussions are under way so that orders can be confirmed as soon as trials have successfully concluded.”
The department said that any further contracts would depend on the trials but gave no time scale. Ahead of a second wave of Covid-19, the government has spent heavily on securing PPE supplies, from UK and overseas producers.
In a big change from the first version of the project, Asos is no longer involved. Using its close relationship with a network of UK textile firms, the online clothing retailer would have co-ordinated the manufacture of up to 5m gowns over a year had the initial scheme gone ahead. The DHSC has not said if it has lined up any other group to replace Asos, leaving a question mark over how it would be organised.
Led by Jenny Holloway, Fashion Enter supplies several top textiles brands and has a strong record on quality and efficiency, with a commitment to workforce training. Fashion Enter declined to comment.
Fabric for the gowns in the tests is being made in a factory in Mansfield run by Japanese textiles firm Toray, which with other businesses was involved in the earlier talks that started in early May but petered out three months later, to the dismay of industry representatives. Toray has said it would be ready to increase output and investment at the plant should a big reusables scheme be approved.
Paul Daynes, sales manager at Toray’s UK arm, said: “I think this [the reusables project] is far from over and I am optimistic that in time we will be successful.” Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, representing manufacturers, designers and suppliers, said: “I welcome the news that the project is being pursued.”
But some business participants in the renewed talks doubt the project will get off the ground. David Stevens, chief executive of the Textile Services Association, representing laundries, said even after the long initial delays talks with government officials continued to be “irregular and slow”. He added: “I doubt if they have a proper plan.”
Northumbria Manufacturing and Distribution Hub was among several groups given contracts to make hospital gowns - mainly disposable - in the early stages of the pandemic
Apart from Fashion Enter, Manchester-based Private White VC is another textiles firm in a good position to win orders at a later stage of the project. The company is making more than 1m disposable gowns for the NHS under an earlier government initiative linked to the coronavirus crisis. It has also made smaller quantities of reusable gowns in a test run several months ago that could be scaled up. Other companies including Barbour made mainly disposable gowns in a series of largely uncoordinated efforts early in the crisis.
The DHSC says by the end of 2020 roughly 20 per cent of PPE for the health and care areas it covers will have been made in the UK. The department defines PPE broadly, including items such as body bags, waste containers and cleaning equipment as well as products like masks, eye protectors and gowns.