The People Getting PPE to the NHS Frontline

There are major gaps in the amount of personal protective equipment that has so far been provided for health and care workers. But people across the country are doing their bit to help—and many are thinking outside the box

In recent days and weeks, people all over the world have tried to make sense of our bewildering historical moment with references to warfare. Emmanuel Macron has told his citizens that “we are at war”, while Donald Trump and others have said much the same. In the UK, Boris Johnson has talked of ordinary citizens being “directly enlisted” into the effort, and the media has been awash with invocations of the wartime Dunkirk spirit, after British citizens who “mucked in” to WWII by using their own sailing boats to rescue soldiers.

Individuals, businesses and university faculties across the country are stepping up to plug gaps in the provision of life-saving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff, a move with echoes of that fateful beachside operation. The need is dire: Health and care workers are having to treat Covid-19 patients without adequate protective clothing to ensure they themselves don’t contract, and/or further spread, the disease.

Doctors and nurses have died. In lieu of an alternative, one Clinical Commissioning Group in Essex has put out a request for commercial PPE from “dentists, car body repair shops, building supplies and asbestos companies”. Some NHS staff have even resorted to constructing makeshift masks out of snorkels.

A significant amount of PPE has been collected by volunteers from MedSupplyDrive UK, a collection of 160 volunteers who have rapidly come together in the wake of this crisis. Within a week of the organisation forming, just shy of 9,000 pieces of equipment were redirected to NHS staff from non-healthcare settings. 

Comprising NHS doctors, medical students, individuals from the art and film industry, beauty industry, IT and consultancy, the organisation has proved to be a force to be reckoned with, fielding multiple requests from hospitals, as well as GP surgeries and other community healthcare settings such as care homes and hospices in need of life-saving kit. 

They’ve received more than 100 donations, mostly from individuals, but also from schools, beauty salons, spas and the construction industry. And they’re not alone—other organisations have also materialised to fight a similar cause, like Heroes, who have a £1,000,000 target for a GoFundMe to support health workers (at the time of writing they’ve raised £181,843).

When we, a tiny company set up to serve a small section of the kink community, find ourselves as a last-resort supplier to our NHS in a time of crisis, something is seriously wrong

Businesses are also trying to make up for the lack of vital equipment. As well as donating to MedSupplyDrive UK, the construction sector has been supporting the NHS through the Contractors Appeal, in spite of the sector being hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. And individual businesses are doing their bit too. “Across the group we are supporting the NHS with supplies, such as the donation of masks, gloves, safety goggles,” a spokesperson for the Travis Perkins hardware store says. “We are all so grateful to all NHS staff working tirelessly through this challenging time.”

3D printing boffins have also stepped up, like Stephen Stewart, faculty head for computing science, business & digital technology at Lochaber High School in Fort William, Scotland. He used his school’s equipment to help produce visors for the cause. “I have a mate in the mountain rescue that got in touch because he heard the hospital was needing visors as PPE and one of the consultants had seen online that they could be 3D printed,” he says. “I looked online for some concepts and used a similar design to what others had made but it needed to be tweaked for our 3D printer at Lochaber High School.

Since last week he has printed 83 from one printer and dropped them into a local hospital. “I think it’s something as a school we should be proud of that we are able to help out at a time of need,” he says. There are other examples of schools stepping in, like St James’ in Essex who have donated goggles and other science and technology equipment after a request from a local paediatrician. But help hasn’t only come from industries like construction, voluntary organisations or schools. 

Manchester-based fetish website MedFet, which sells medical goods to people with a kink for all things pharmaceutical, has donated its entire stock of scrubs to an NHS hospital. “When we, a tiny company set up to serve a small section of the kink community, find ourselves being sought out as a last-resort supplier to our National Health Service in a time of crisis, something is seriously wrong. In fact, it's scandalous,” the company wrote on its Twitter page, lamenting “underfunding and cuts which has left the NHS barely able to cope under normal circumstances, much less when faced with the onslaught of a global pandemic.”

“Our reaction to being contacted [by representatives of NHS procurement] was definitely a surprise, especially when we realised the first contact early last week wasn't going to be a one-off,” an employee tells Change Incorporated. “That turned to shock and anger, as our Twitter thread made clear. It did not enter our heads for a second that we'd receive an email which literally said ‘urgently need disposable scrubs for hospital use’.”

Still, the company is in a better place to provide equipment. “All our products are genuine medical grade, exactly the same as those used in hospitals and other healthcare facilities in the UK and worldwide,” he says. And others in the community are doing the same: “We are aware of a few others in the medfet community including individuals and pro-dominatrices who have donated items e.g. gloves and masks to their local frontline workers. And at least one pro-domme medfet specialist who is an ex-nurse and has volunteered to assist if required.”

The theme is a desire to help in the hour of need. And it’s one which also reached one of the UK’s iconic opera houses, Glyndebourne in Sussex. After being contacted two weeks ago by a member of seasonal staff who was circulating an email containing a list of supplies needed and a list of local clinics in short supply, staff were keen to use their expertise in props and logistics to aid the effort. There’s a surprising amount of PPE used by an organisation like Glyndebourne, whose work involves building elaborate sets, as well as keeping everything in state-of-the-art condition.

PPE collected at Glyndebourne Opera House for donation to the NHS. Photo by Jenny Wheeler

PPE is used by a few different departments including the props, carpentry and cleaning departments, a spokesperson says. “Knowing how much PPE we use and stock in our department it was then a case of emailing everyone else to see what they had and getting it all in one place,” they say. They collected 46 boxes of gloves, three pairs of goggles, a box of masks, six tyvek overalls, 1,000 surface wipes and a few other bits. “Once we had everything, we were able to get it round to the clinics on the same day,” the spokesperson says. “No special skills really, just logistics—what we do day in, day out!”

Of course, there’s nothing everyday about these extraordinary times. But while the lack of PPE is an urgent crisis with major humanitarian consequences, one silver lining—like so much in these times—has been the generosity of spirit from individuals and organisations who against all odds feel compelled to do the right thing.

Photographer of PPE provided by Glyndebourne: Jenny Wheeler