Initial production capacity will be 4-5m face coverings a week © RUI VIEIRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Initial production capacity will be 4-5m face coverings a week © RUI VIEIRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

How the UK is building a face covering supply chain from scratch

31 July 2020

The steps involved in building a new supply chain for face coverings in the UK have been described by procurement experts at the Cabinet Office (CO).

Daniel Gillett, lead market analyst at the CO, told SM the challenges around sourcing materials, establishing factories and quality standards in setting up a supply of face coverings.

The new supply chain has been established to provide non-medical-grade face coverings. As rule changes on wearing masks in shops and on public transport is increasing public demand, this will prevent personal protective equipment being diverted from the NHS.

The government programme aims to kickstart Britain’s domestic manufacturing of face coverings, resulting in a “sovereign supply”.  

"We wanted to help trigger the manufacturing capability in the UK and help deliver a much needed resource into the UK,” said Gillett.

The four manufacturers involved in the scheme are the British Rototherm Group, Cookson & Clegg (C&C), Scottish firm Transcal, and Pennine Healthcare. 

While the British Rototherm Group and C&C are already in production with factories in Port Talbot, Wales, and Blackburn, Lancashire, production lines at Transcal in Livingstone, Scotland, are due to go live in the next two weeks. 

Initial production capacity will be 4-5m face coverings a week, ramping up to 15m once all 20 lines are in operation.

The government assisted manufacturing organisations with identifying material producers in the UK for sourcing specialist materials, such as polypropylene cloth.

Sally Dwamena, market health analyst at the CO, told SM: “The face coverings produced use materials made from polypropylene, which is a type of plastic, and it's a three layer face covering so the inner and outer layers are made from a spunbond polypropylene, and then the middle layer, which is the only layer which offers any kind of filtration is made from a meltblown polypropylene.”

The materials were sourced from domestic suppliers, establishing a foundation for future UK production by building long-lasting supplier relationships.

Gillett said: “We were able to make sure the materials we sourced for the manufacturers, who now subsequently have those relationships to make face coverings, surpassed the BSI [British Standards Institute] specification minimum level. We're not competing with the NHS for materials they could use, but it is a really high quality of material.”

The government worked closely with BSI who have established a UK minimum specification for face coverings, to ensure a measurable and guaranteed effectiveness, as well as providing other producers with a benchmark going forward. 

The BSI was involved in the production process to ensure suppliers met material quality levels and the end product in factories achieved the required minimum filtration level of 70%.

Dwamena said: “Previously, there was no pre-existing specification. It is currently the only one and the first one to have that kitemark. From advice from the BSI, we talked about what was already out there: a French specification called AFNOR.”

The BSI and European specifications were both based around this French specification trademark. 

Domestic manufacturing is vital at this time as fraudulent face coverings and PPE have become a key issue for procurement professionals.

Gillett explained: “We're seeing a significant level of interest from people because they're able to have 100% confidence in the quality of the product. There's been a lot of dubious quality face coverings, even if people are buying what they think are surgical masks, we’re hearing horror stories that some of that is fake. 

“There's a lot of interest in the manufacture in the UK because not only does the BSI kitemark provide confidence in the quality of the product and the environment its made in, in terms of social distancing, quality and cleanliness, but buying in the UK also gives them far greater confidence in the provenance of the face covering.”

Find out what mistakes to be aware of when procuring PPE here.

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