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Protecting the frontline: What the pandemic taught us about supply chain resilience

Last year, the pandemic presented the world with the ultimate supply chain crisis: a challenge never before experienced. The mad and well-documented dash for personal protective equipment (PPE) propelled supply chain leaders into operating at speeds and scales previously unheard of and, with the health of the global population at risk, teams were forced to pivot quickly to reach new levels of efficiency.

In a recent podcast episode hosted by Simon Lipscomb, Director at Efficio, the world’s largest procurement consultancy, Gary Horsfield, Chief Operating Officer UK PPE at NHS Department of Health and Social Care, reflected on how he and his team reacted to an event nobody could have prepared for, what was learnt, and how those learnings can be applied in the future.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gary and his team have ordered 32 billion PPE items – 8 billion of which have been delivered to 58,000 locations across the UK to date. His team has also built an entirely new online portal, enabling frontline workers to place direct orders, and creating a UK PPE manufacturing capability almost from scratch. Approximately 2,500 jobs were created as a result, and PPE can now get to those who need it, when they need it.

Rewind to early last year, however, and it was a very different story. “I got a phone call on a Saturday morning and had started by the Monday – right in the middle of what was a very visible global crisis,” Horsfield explained of his induction into the role. At this time, demand for PPE had reached almost 1,500 times what it was prior to the virus’ outbreak. “Then add other factors, including prices going through the roof, border issues, a shortage of containers and international freight, and the looming Brexit … the situation very quickly became the perfect storm, throwing into sharp focus all the existing weak spots within global supply chains.”

“As well as securing PPE, it was important to set up a base for long term resilience; there’s no point focussing on the long term and not delivering short term,” Horsfield asserts. “There’s no heroism in reinventing the wheel, right? The achievement is in delivering the results.”

But delivering the results is hard to do when the system is not fit for purpose. Along with highlighting the broken systems and processes within supply chain, the pandemic brought with it a unique opportunity that both urged and allowed us to bridge those gaps, shore up the deficiencies and apply the learnings. “You wouldn’t wish the crisis on anyone and you certainly wouldn’t wish it again. But these sorts of events allow you to do things and break what appear to be norms. It taught us what we could build off the back of it,” Horsfield commented.

The challenge now, Horsfield states, “is to prove that what we build wasn’t just because of the crisis, it was always possible. The speed and significance at which the situation moved only gave us license to implement those changes at a much quicker pace.”

Simon Lipscomb concludes, “Supply chains across all sectors have faced rapid and accelerated change over the past year. The lessons learnt over this period have proven invaluable and if there is one thing organisations can take forward from this, it is that supply chain resilience, above all things, will be crucial as we continue to navigate a high-risk world. Beyond the pandemic, the ongoing ramifications of Brexit, coupled with the continued global chip shortage have highlighted that supply chains need to be agile enough to be able to rapidly restructure where challenges arise. Having the right tools, skills and talent in place within the supply chain will be crucial to making this possible.”