One of the great lessons from the early stages of the pandemic was the need to shorten supply chains and make them more robust. This was especially true for medical supplies. Just-in-time supply chains have been developed over the years to increase efficiency, but had never been tested in a global crisis when demand for certain medical products is high and supply is weak. The government ended up paying huge sums for PPE which, in some cases, was not even suitable for use.
It seems the lesson has not entirely been learned. There is now a shortage of blood tubes – the small plastic tubes which are used for collecting samples of blood. NHS England has now demanded that all community and non-urgent blood tests be halted until 17 September – which may affect patients such as those receiving treatment for fertility problems, allergies and pre-diabetes. Clinically urgent testing may continue.
The NHS sources many blood tubes from Becton Dickinson, a multinational medical supplies company which has a sizeable operation in Britain, employing 3,500 people in the UK and Ireland. It does not, however manufacture the tubes wholly within Britain – it sources parts of them from the US. A member of the BMA has attacked the NHS for being over-reliant on one supplier, although the NHS has indicated that there is a global shortage of blood tubes in general.
The shortage raises eyebrows because a plastic tube is, after all, a plastic tube – which is among the simpler items used by the NHS. If we end up running out of plastic tubes, what hope do we have of maintaining supplies of more sophisticated equipment and medicines during times of crisis? NHS procurement policies have been under the spotlight in recent years mainly in terms of financial waste. It has centralised some of its procurement in order to make greater use of bulk buying power, but such an approach comes with problems if it means an over-reliance on a narrow range of suppliers. One of the questions the NHS will be left asking is whether it needs to diversify its supply chain, or ensure that it has more local suppliers. It should answer those questions – even if it costs more.