Coronavirus: Higher education rushes to nurse NHS through crisis

26 March 2020, 11:23 | Updated: 26 March 2020, 17:05

Universities and colleges have donated thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to NHS hospitals in an effort to ease shortages of safety equipment for doctors and nurses.

As well as sending supplies of equipment from mothballed laboratories to local hospitals, universities have also identified potential candidates who could potentially provide urgent supplies.

In response, the government has asked for procurement specialists to volunteer to help "swamped" civil servants negotiate with suppliers on behalf of the NHS. Around 20 buyers from the higher education sector have offered to help in just 24 hours.

Some universities began sending spare supplies to local hospitals last week, prompting the London University Purchasing Consortium (LUPC) to coordinate a wider effort.

They asked anyone with spare supplies to contact the Cabinet Office COVID-19 response team and this week called for volunteers.

In a letter to university buying teams LUPC said: "The NHS needs a massive supply of PPE and the Cabinet Office is swamped with potential sources.

"They are looking for volunteer staff, preferably with PPE procurement experience, to negotiate with suppliers from home and then pass on a simple form so that the Cabinet Office team can place orders. PPE experience is not essential - they need professional buyers."

Don Bowman, director of the LUPC, told Sky News: "Through our contacts in procurement we have been able to identify alternative sources of some of the equipment the NHS needs. The hospitality sector for example has been buying hand sanitiser for several months but is now not in a position to use it.

"Likewise the construction industry has supplies of face masks they may not be able to use. So we have passed these on to the Cabinet Office, as well as those higher education contacts who have large quantities of PPE.

"For those with smaller quantities of PPE we have advised them to pass them directly to their local hospital. Aston University was perhaps the first to start doing this.

"I am extremely proud of the sector and the way it has stepped up, with everyone helping together and doing what we can."

NHS workers have consistently complained that they do not have sufficient PPE to safely treat the wave of COVID-19 patients without risking transmission of the virus to them and colleagues.

Nurses and doctors have resorted to making their own protective aprons and hats from plastic bags, and several have posted pictures of themselves in what they consider ineffective protective equipment.

Among the items in short supply are: face masks, eye protection, respirators, alcohol hand sanitiser gel, surgical theatre gowns, long-sleeve plastic aprons, disposable gloves in medium and large sizes, plastic shoe covers and disposable hygienic bags.

The call for volunteers in specialist procurement gives an insight into the challenge facing civil servants in tackling the massive government-wide effort to respond to the coronavirus epidemic.

On Monday, the Department of Health said "millions" of PPE kits had been delivered to NHS Trusts across the country but shortages remain in hospitals, hospices, care homes and among other essential workers.

More than 500,000 people have volunteered to join a national effort to help the NHS and assist vulnerable people isolated at home.

A government spokesperson said: "We are working around the clock to give the NHS and the wider social care sector the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.

"Over the last two days, more than 15 million facemasks have been delivered to the frontline and yesterday's deliveries included 24.6 million gloves and 1.9 million eye protectors.

"The full weight of the government is behind this effort and we are working closely with industry, social care providers, the NHS, and the army so all our NHS and care staff have the protection they deserve."