COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on several industries, none less so than manufacturing and supply chains. In the UK, frailties were exposed through the Government failing to supply key workers and medical staff with adequate PPE equipment and ventilators.
Offshore supply chains were unable to keep up with the sudden surge in demand for PPE following the pandemic. Other failures include the government’s stockpile of PPE being described as inadequate. Because of this, the UK was forced to import equipment from other countries, which proved difficult due to export bans. An 84-tonne shipment from Turkey of PPE was delayed, with just one UK manufacturer producing medical gowns made from the adequate fluid-resistant material.
This failure to supply the UK’s key workers and medical staff with PPE equipment could see a resurgence of reshoring within UK manufacturing. The UK has relied on overseas manufacturing and supply chains for decades, due to cheaper manufacturing and labour costs. Yet the global pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies of offshoring, such as reliability, delivery and quality. As seen, over-reliance on offshore production and supply chains for such vital equipment can have devastating consequences on public health and the economy.
Is the UK Over-Reliant on Offshore Manufacturing?
Globalisation with production has its benefits. If the demand for the product is stable and unlikely to fluctuate, offshoring can provide beneficial links abroad and result in cheaper manufacturing costs. Yet for an industry as vital as healthcare, an over-reliance on offshore production and supply chains is risky.
For critical supplies like medical equipment, over-reliance on offshore production can be dangerous.
Production of equipment in other countries is cheaper for several reasons, including more leniency with environmental and health and safety concerns. These are important factors which can affect the quality of production, as well as the final product. Of the 84 tonnes of PPE equipment shipped in from Turkey, 400,000 medical gowns were described as “useless” (1). Relying on offshoring for the production and delivery of such important equipment can have devastating effects on the economy and more importantly, national health.
Perhaps offshoring can remain an effective long-term solution for everyday consumable goods, such as clothing and technology. Yet for critical supplies like medical equipment, over-reliance on offshore production can be dangerous.
UK Manufacturer Adaptability
There have been arguments for reshoring within UK manufacturing for several years. The quality of products, a more streamlined distribution of goods and environmental factors have been cited as reasons for this. The PPE shortages due to the pandemic have given this argument momentum.
One of the reasons critics disagree with reshoring the production of goods is the difficulties in replicating manufacturing from overseas. It is thought meeting such high demands is difficult to achieve and manufacturers would need time to adapt.
Post-COVID-19, gradually shifting the production of critical components back to the UK should be a priority.
Yet due to the frailties within supply chains, UK manufacturers have worked together and contributed to supplying the country with PPE and ventilators. Companies from a range of industries such as John Lewis, Dyson and Jaguar came to the country's aid to produce ventilators, gowns, masks and more (2).
Producing and distributing such critical components at such short notice shows great adaptability and versatility. It may not be enough to suggest the UK can completely reshore the production of goods in the long-term, yet it is promising to see they can meet short-term demand in difficult conditions like a pandemic.
Completely reshoring UK manufacturing may be a step too far. Relying on offshore production for products such as clothing and technology has benefited the UK; completely switching production for these industries to these shores is a risk. However, with essential industries such as healthcare, there is no doubt that if the UK manufactures more equipment on these shores, this would have assisted the country during the pandemic. Post-COVID-19, gradually shifting the production of critical components back to the UK should be a priority. UK manufacturers have already shown their adaptability when it comes to production - with a more long-term approach to the production of these components, this could put the UK in a better position should another similar pandemic occur.