'We can do this'

Unite AGS Steve Turner: government must unleash 'manufacturing army' to produce PPE

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The cruel and indiscriminate nature of this virus became very real for Unite this weekend, with the news that bus workers were dying of this disease in the capital. And, of course, it’s not just in the capital – or just in the bus industry – where workers are losing their lives, which is why we are keeping a nationwide watch on the impact of coronavirus on our members.


Our union has been at the forefront of the push to manufacture the personal protective equipment that this workforce so desperately needs. From care homes and bus cabs to warehouses and critical care wards, the people who care and support us are putting their lives on the line. The very least this country should be doing is providing them with the kit to protect theirs.


That is why last week we joined forces with the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association, UNISON and the Royal College of Nursing to call upon on the government to unleash a national effort – a manufacturing army – to produce the crucial PPE that millions of key workers need to keep safe during this crisis.


We are supported in this by the industry bodies ADS Group and the British Printing Industries Federation to say: with our manufacturing workers currently furloughed or underused, the focus now should be to repurpose our factories and their workforces to produce the PPE kit desperately needed by our NHS, social care providers and other frontline workers across the UK.


Our members are desperate to play their part. To use their skills, engineering and manufacturing expertise to ramp up production – under licence from existing UK manufacturers that simply can’t cope with demand or secure essential supplies given the unprecedented international demands on raw materials and components. And of course, our workplaces will be safe and operating in accordance to the most stringent public health guidance.


Millions of PPE kits are urgently needed to supply UK industry, but there is also the scope for our manufacturers to export excess to wherever it is needed. We simply need the government to give the signal for UK Plc to swing into action. Unions are about keeping people in work, secure and safe, so it is intensely frustrating to have plants and people standing idle and underused when they could be put to great use in defence of the public’s health.


We have called upon government to move forward from the press conference claims to waste no more time and put out a ‘call-to-arms’ to existing providers, materials suppliers and manufacturers. By temporarily removing manufacturing restrictions based on copyright, patent or intellectual property, we could have a manufacturing army up and running – producing a range of PPE and essential supplies – in a matter of days.


Unite understands that we are facing tremendous challenges right now on a number of fronts, and at a later stage there will be time to reflect on public policy, industrial strategy and UK manufacturing’s supply chain resilience. But right now we all have a responsibility to step up in the national interest and help those who are putting their lives on the line every hour of every day to save ours.


We have showed how UK manufacturing can pull together in the national interest to produce urgently needed medical ventilators, and we already have our members at the Royal Mint producing medical visors. We can do this. In Northern Ireland last week, over 100 companies responded positively to produce everything from hand sanitiser to medical scrubs; a call from the Australian government last week saw 130 manufacturing companies step up to produce hand sanitiser, visors and face masks, goggles, gloves, surgical gowns, mask fit test kits and thermometers.


There is no reason why we cannot ramp up production across the UK – with government planning and coordination between those coming forward to provide lifesaving PPE for all, from our NHS to local government, from food manufacturing to parcel delivery. Unite members stand ready to deliver. Our movement – an army of millions – knows what must be done in the national interest and how to deliver it. We appeal to government: make that call to arms and make it now.


This comment first appeared on LabourList on Monday (April 6).


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