Published 6 May 2020
Personal Protective Equipment for frontline staff is and has been critical to reducing exposure and viral load from treating patients with the Covid-19 disease. Access to it has been an issue from early March - search term data shows how the interest grew since February.
Interest in PPE has declined and only in time will we understand the cause of the delays, but there will be two sides: supply and demand. Both need to be understood ahead of future waves of Covid-19 or pandemics more generally, so that responses are both safe and measured. During an age of austerity, no manufacturer is going to increase their surge capacity capability if it means rising prices in a competitive marketplace. This means the supply chain will be able to meet normal, but not surge, demands. This is why stockpiles matter, although these appear not to have been designed for a pandemic of this scale. Interestingly, a Minister in France that pushed heavily for ordering masks and vaccines in anticipation of H1N1 was pressured into resigning when it was left unused. A potentially more significant and overlooked problem is managing the demand. As we discovered with toilet roll, scarcity makes the heart grow fonder and drives stockpiling. With a lack of clarity on the severity, expected duration and requirements, it is reasonable for an independent organisation that needs PPE to err on the side of caution and order at least enough - possibly too much.
This was seen in the US during H1N1 and Ebola. Suppliers had to decide how to allocate limited stock, which led to hospitals placing multiple orders across different suppliers. Suppliers became unclear what was true demand, so were uncertain whether to increase their production. Mix in further uncertainty over the potential duration of the crisis and future Government policy, and investment to increase supply becomes speculative.
Given the cost of maintaining supply systems capable of surging production and distribution, it will be essential to consider measures to coordinate and manage demand more effectively going forward. Combining this with the ability to quickly signal the need for additional supply to industry, which might mean increasing prices and guaranteeing minimum orders, will help reestablish the supply and demand equilibrium.
Ultimately this will help to protect frontline workers.