Four lessons from PPE procurement

21 September 2021

The battle to source PPE during the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the biggest supply chain challenges in a generation. But what can be learnt from the task?

In 2019, the NHS and social care sector in England received around 2.4bn items of PPE. But following the spread of Covid-19 across the world, the NHS required billions of PPE items each month alone.

Talking at the Procurex National conference, Chris Holmes, director of supply chain at NHS Supply Chain, and Sarah Holliehead, head of procurement at Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, argued despite the difficulties, the pandemic has actually been “positive” for the procurement sector.

Holliehead said: “The profile of procurement has really risen during the past 18 months. And it's been a long time coming. I think now it's time to use that recognition. There are horror stories, but actually on the whole it’s really positive.”

1. Inventory and supplies

Hollihead explained the pandemic and demand for PPE highlighted the importance of robust inventory and supply systems. 

She said: “We have learned a lot within my own trust about inventory and supplies and the value of having a robust inventory supply system."

She said procurement had been good at collaborating prior to Covid. "But it got much better during the pandemic."

She argued the push model adopted by the NHS was “the only way that this would have worked at the scale that we needed to do in the timeframe”.

2. Visibility

Both Holliehead and Holmes said the realisation that different trusts had different PPE requirements was fundamental to tackling the PPE crisis. They said sharing information between NHS trusts and supply partners was essential. 

“I think that information both ways between us and our supply partners was really important. When it came to PPE, the biggest realisation was that not one size fits all. The different practices taking place at different trusts require different PPE, and that evolved continuously throughout the first few months of the pandemic. And I don't think it was quite grasped,” Hollihead said.

Holmes said understanding the needs of each NHS trust and having visibility within supply chains was one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic. 

He said: “Inventory management end to end, that visibility, that supply is all powerful, because you're then able to make informed decisions.

“If you don't have visibility of your end-to-end supply chain, you need to think what can you do to get that, because that will enable you to make decisions and inform what you need to do.”

3. Forward planning 

While we all know the benefits advanced planning can bring, the pandemic brought this acutely into the spotlight.

Holmes said: “We have to make sure we get that balance right between how we operate an efficient supply chain operation, but also how we do prepare for things that when they come along, they are so extreme. If you don't prepare, you can't respond.”

He pointed to how while the NHS had pandemic planning in place regarding flu, “flu is not Covid”. 

He also said there needed to be a realisation of the “constraints” within the public sector to “make sure that we learn the lessons that we've had to go through over the past 18 months”.

4. Bringing supply chains to you

Holmes said other sectors can learn from how the NHS dealt with the PPE crisis, including working with supply partners to bring supplies closer to home.  

He explained: “One of the things that we're doing is talking to suppliers about how we can utilise their own supply chains. So how do you build resilience? Not necessarily at one point, but several points within that supply chain.”

Holmes acknowledged this might not be possible in all sectors, but he encouraged people to engage with suppliers to see if “there's a position whereby your supplier partners can place products closer to you, so that in the event of disruption, what you're not trying to do is cross water with your products, which was one of the problems with PPE.”

Hollihead noted PPE supplies improved once supply chains had been reconfigured and brought closer to the NHS. 

“One of the things that when we really started to breathe easier was when we brought more manufacturing into the UK and around 70% off PPE was being manufactured on UK soil,” she said. 

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