Buyer decided 'within 30 seconds' to tackle deadly Ebola outbreak on the ground in Sierra Leone

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
7 October 2015

A buyer at the cutting edge of the UK response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone has described working 16-hour days, seven days a week to combat the epidemic on the ground in West Africa.

John McGhie, procurement and commercial supply chain demand manager for the Department for International Development's (DFID) Ebola Crisis Unit, has been in the country since December 2014 to coordinate the provision of goods vital to tackling the disease.

“It was a seven-day week, roughly 14 to 16 hours a day and that was until the end of February, before we stepped that back to six days a week,” he told SM from Sierra Leone. “We still operate six days a week and it's still a minimum 10, 12 hours a day.”

McGhie, who was previously head of procurement for the Red Cross and has managed global supply chains in the retail sector, described how DFID asked for volunteers to manage the procurement effort on the ground.

“I had a weekend to decide. I decided within 30 seconds but I thought it was the better part of valour to discuss it with my wife and daughter,” he said.

“We get a break every six to eight weeks for about a week so we can get home, check in, recharge and then get back into the field.”

McGhie, along with purchasers at DFID and private sector aid buying organisations, have bought everything required to build and support six treatment centres.

“At all levels this was not a standard reach out to the supply chain: this was a global mobilisation,” he said.

“There were some tough negotiations but there was an understanding this could not be an elongated piece. The longer it took the more chance the infection would catch fire and we would be fighting an incredible uphill battle.

“We were very clear what was needed and required. Even though we needed big volumes of goods in a rapid form we were quite clear in pointing out this was being done for the benefit of humanity. There was a common sense approach but at the same time the value for taxpayer money was paramount.”

McGhie said sourcing personal protective equipment, including coveralls and masks, prompted the response from suppliers that “no-one has ever asked for these volumes”. “We maxed out the globe,” he said.

He added shipping equipment to the country involved the use of cargo ships and daily freight flights in order to build a “mini NHS supply chain in West Africa”.

Among the most impressive achievements was the construction of a treatment centre in scrub land in just 22 days.

“We’ve moved close to around 6,500 tonnes of equipment, 200 plus flights, three ships, over 4,500 thousand truck movements and we are still going,” said McGhie.

Key aims of the work now are to build the resilience of the Sierra Leone government to tackle future outbreaks and bring the number of new cases of Ebola to zero for a period of 42 days. “Only then can we consider that the disease has been eradicated,” said McGhie.

This is yet to be achieved. “Back in December there was one case that within two days of travel in the country had infected 52 people. You can understand why it has been difficult to lock this down,” said McGhie.

McGhie was originally supposed to be in the country for six months, but this has been extended a number of times. He is scheduled to finish in January 2016.

DFID won Best Contribution to the Reputation of the Procurement Profession and Best Cross-Functional Teamwork at the CIPS Supply Management Awards last month for its response to the Ebola crisis and it is also due to present at the CIPS Annual Conference in London on 8 October.

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