My friend Murat runs two tailor’s shops in the south of England. Having arrived from Turkey as a sole trader five years ago running a little alteration business in Salisbury, he now employs eight people, has a second premises in Winchester, and offers a full bespoke suit-making service. When Covid-19 hit, he and his team of mainly Turkish immigrant craftsmen put their skills at the service of the NHS, making scrubs for Southampton University Hospital as supply lines around the world crumbled in the face of unprecedented demand.
It’s hard to think of two similar sized towns in the United Kingdom more unlike one another than Salisbury and Strabane, yet a similar story played itself out on a bigger scale there. This stronghold of Irish Republicanism on the Tyrone/Donegal border is home to O’Neills, a global sportswear brand that has expanded so far beyond its origins making Gaelic football and hurling gear that they now design and make, among other things, the strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national football team. I know this because I was sat next to a gentleman wearing one on a Lusaka to Copperbelt bus last July, a market trader shuttling goods between his homeland and Zambia. We had no common language and it seemed he had never heard of Northern or any other Ireland, but a boy brought up by the River Lagan still rubbed shoulders, literally, with a man in a jersey made by the River Foyle as we bounced up Central Africa’s Great North Road. O’Neills closed their Strabane factory and made 750 staff redundant a few days before the lockdown was introduced, but within a week had brought some staff back to make scrubs for the Covid-19 ward at the nearby Altnagelvin Hospital. Currently, they are making more than 10,000 sets of scrubs a week, with more than 400 staff back at work.
The hoarding of supplies abroad is a warning that the NHS needs to urgently shorten supply lines
Here we have two entrepreneurially-minded firms, in different ways on the margins of being British, reshaping their production lines to work for the common good in a national emergency. At the same time other firms reported huge frustrations with bureaucracy and seeming official disinterest as they attempted to respond to the government’s requests to switch production to PPE. This despite the problems in securing supplies from overseas during the height of the pandemic. James Ball reported in this week’s Spectator that Public Health England had indeed acted to top up its depleted PPE supplies in January as the news from China became steadily more worrying. The problem was that the enormous order went to a factory in France, whose government quite sensibly requisitioned all PPE within its borders once the virus struck Western Europe, whatever the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ might have demanded. It is by now almost facile to note how national sovereignty has reasserted itself over globalism during the pandemic. The hoarding of global supplies of Redemsivir by the United States, as the virus is getting out of control there again, is a warning that the NHS needs to urgently shorten all sorts of supply lines during what will be a lengthy crisis with shifting global epicentres.
Should we see this as a threat, however, or an opportunity? Since the 1980s, governments of all stripes have been content to see UK manufacturing dwindle as the services sector was supposedly sufficient on its own to support advanced economies. This neglect was particularly pronounced at the lower-tech end of manufacturing. In the early days of the coalition, both George Osborne and Vince Cable talked about the need to rebalance the economy, but this was rapidly forgotten as the global free-traders who inevitably dominate what passes for thinking about trade policy in London reasserted themselves. The Brexit referendum saw the UK polarised between those who wished to maintain a present where both goods and labour were imported from lower cost parts of Europe, and those who wished to create a future where both were sourced from lower cost regions across the globe. Neither talked of British self-sufficiency, an idea that had become about as fashionable as George Formby.
It astonishes me that neither main political party has shown any interest in arguing for the long-term reshoring of PPE production for the NHS, even as the UK’s vulnerability to long supply lines has been exposed. Beyond that issue, however, the dependence on China in particular, with around half of medical PPE used in Europe and North America being made there, gives Beijing enormous geopolitical leverage. Still more worryingly, global overdependence on Chinese manufacturing extends well beyond that one sector. In a serious political standoff with Beijing, the economic consequences of an unhealthy degree of reliance on Chinese suppliers might be a more serious constraint on other countries’ freedom of action than any purely military threat. The British government spent much of the 2010s offering China a privileged position in its supply chain for both nuclear technology and strategic telecommunications equipment, which now seems extraordinarily short-sighted. The UK was once a world leader in both sectors. There is no good reason why it should not be again, but it’s hard to imagine that happening when there is such political disinterest in the idea of reshoring something as technologically simple as PPE when medical supplies are one of the big political issues of the day. It’s hard to see why the much touted “Red Wall”, or anywhere else, come to that, wouldn’t welcome the jobs that would come with such an approach.
Promoting ‘socialised medicine in one country’ ought to be a no-brainer for a Disraelian Prime Minister channelling Roosevelt in a land where the NHS is not only a secular religion but the most potent force gluing together an increasingly fragmented United Kingdom. With Tories seemingly uninterested in the opportunity, one would expect it to be seized by a Labour leader who understands that his party desperately needs to focus on jobs and public services rather than Woke obsessions. Yet both are oblivious to a valuable political prize begging to be claimed.
Here we see the myopia of Westminster’s political culture with particular clarity, failing to grasp opportunities to create British jobs and bolster British security, even as the possibilities are obvious to people on the ground, from Turkish immigrants in the Southern shires to residents of Republican towns on the border.
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