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The battle for PPE – never was so much owed by so many to so few

Can Lord Deighton do for PPE what Lord Beaverbrook did for Spitfires?

This is going to be a challenging week for the British government. Last week was wobbly enough. Whilst the hors de combat prime minister recuperated at Chequers, a narrative took root that neither his under-study, the First Minister of State Dominic Raab, nor the rest of the cabinet were willing or able to take strategic decisions.

The big call they were asked to make – on prolonging the lockdown – was, in reality, a foregone conclusion. But their collective failure to provide reassurance that sufficient PPE supplies were on the way to stave off a crisis, or that a lockdown exit strategy (beyond a few generalisations) existed or was in advanced preparation, has created unease. Added to this, the number of daily tests conducted remains far from the trajectory required to meet Matt Hancock’s pledge of 100,000 a day by the month’s end.

Indeed, it is the heath secretary who has been under the greatest pressure in recent days, his initial and instinctive Tiggerish demeanour giving way to a more frustrated and defensive posture as criticism intensified. On Matt Hancock’s watch, over 1 billion PPE items have been delivered to the frontline since the crisis began. It is worth stating that figure again. One billion. In the face of the international supply problems, this represents an extraordinary effort. Yet it is not enough. The crisis has come and frontline healthcare staff are facing the prospect of being asked to treat virus sufferers with partial protection – which is no protection.

A further 12 million PPE items were delivered yesterday. But shortage of gowns is the greatest challenge. Even had the scheduled arrival over the weekend of 400,000 gowns from Turkey not been delayed, it would still not quite have kept the NHS fully supplied for the next three days. At current rates of usage, 150,000 gowns a day are required by NHS workers alone. What evidence is there that this replacement rate can be met not just this week, but for months to come?

Last week’s leaking of an email sent to hospitals and NHS trusts from a military liaison officer suggested that PPE supply would not reach “sustainable” levels until mid-June. If an accurate forecast, the next seven to eight weeks are going to be extremely tough.

Into this crisis bravely steps, Lord Deighton. The former Treasury minister in David Cameron’s government who was chief executive of the organising committee of the London Olympics, has accepted the challenge of boosting domestic PPE manufacture. It is clear that imports will be insufficient to meet need, so the UK is going to have to make its own.

We are told that Deighton’s appointment is at Boris Johnson’s express command, one sign that the prime minister may not yet be receiving red boxes but is not entirely switched off from the struggles of his government. Welcoming his appointment, Hancock compared Deighton’s role to that of Lord Beaverbrook in 1940 when the Daily Express’s owner became minister of aircraft production. Beaverbrook duly brought his galvanising energy to the role (before he tired of it and went to the Ministry of Supply instead) overseeing – with the help of his ministry’s director general Eric Fraser– a vast increase in the numbers of aircraft being made for the RAF.

Historians debate how much of that expansion was already in the pipeline and whether the priority it received diverted resources that might better have gone to other areas of the war effort. But be that as it may, the analogy with Beaverbrook is meant to be a good omen. Did the idea come to the prime minister because he had studied Beaverbrook’s ministry whilst writing The Churchill Factor? Possibly, although Beaverbrook’s role goes unmentioned in that book.

In practice, the analogy between Deighton and Beaverbrook is misleading. The minister of aircraft production was a member of Churchill’s war cabinet. Although Beaverbrook’s team eschewed Whitehall bureaucratic method (which was never Beaverbrook’s preferred way of doing business) it was nevertheless a government ministry. Deighton is the head of no ministry. He has not been asked to join the cabinet. He is being described as a PPE “tsar” a title that bears no relation to the exercise of absolute power that real tsars enjoyed.

Deighton has only days with which to make a difference

Asked today by this magazine what executive authority Deighton would wield, the prime minister’s spokesman said that “government officials are authorised to place orders for PPE” and that Deighton would be among those who report “into the coronavirus morning meeting which receives daily updates of supply and progress in the making and sourcing of the materials we need.”

Deighton’s role is defined by the Downing Street source as follows, “he will lead the national effort to boost PPE production in the UK and he’ll also support the scaling-up of engineering efforts of small companies capable of contributing to supplies.”

Over 6,000 such companies have offered their services though the department of health and social care’s portal. Processing this number is already a bottleneck and not all those who have expressed their willingness to help may prove capable of meeting the specifications or accessing the materials required. The coordinating of material – some of it now in short supply – is every bit as important to the process as giving approval to individual companies.

It is considerably easier to mass manufacture protective gowns than Spitfires and Hurricanes, but the scale of the challenge confronting Lord Deighton is every bit as daunting as that which faced Lord Beaverbrook in 1940. Deighton has only days with which to make a difference and in that time needs to identify and direct specifications to factories making items which they have never made before.

What he can do is lift one area of intense pressure from the shoulders of the health secretary. In that sense his appointment is political, redirecting some of the unfriendly fire away from Matt Hancock and onto himself. To state this is not to suggest it is singularly a PR diversionary tactic (although it does have that advantage). The reality is that Hancock cannot give his time proportionately to all the demands that are now being placed upon him. The PPE challenge risks swamping everything else in his in-tray.

There is much about Deighton’s role that remains unclear: which civil servants from what departments have been assigned to help him?; does he have any restriction on the money he can channel to anyone looking plausibly able to come to the rescue? But the scale of the PPE challenge is now so great that having someone of his proven organisational skills focused singularly on it is surely more sensible than leaving it to a health secretary who is also expected to oversee every other aspect of an NHS and social care sector facing its greatest ever emergency.

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