Wellingborough-based and privately-owned Full Support Group is one of the UK’s biggest suppliers of personal and respiratory protective equipment to the healthcare market and has a growing presence in the industrial sector. We spoke to CEO Sarah Stoute about current demands, challenges and future plans to help businesses manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarah Stoute, CEO of Full Support, is grateful to have had more than five hours’ sleep on a rare evening when she has been able to tear herself away from her laptop. Over the past ten weeks she has sourced over £2.3billion of PPE, largely achieved without confirmed purchase orders because she understands that the NHS and others cannot receive these vital supplies quickly enough.
“I’m proud of my team, of what they have achieved and the risks we’ve had to take as a business,” she explains. “We’re doing what we have to because otherwise the NHS wouldn’t get the levels of stock they need. Nobody gets anything done by procrastinating. Yes, I’m tired and we’re all working under extreme pressure, but it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.”
Before any of us had even heard of COVID-19, Full Support had been developing an enviable record, growing over the past 20 years into an independent, family-run firm competing with multi-billion-pound global corporations while staying true to its vision of ‘bringing quality products to customers at reasonable prices.’
Today, in a world few could have imagined, the impacts of coronavirus have come with both professional and personal pressures for the business. Sarah continues: “Our product volumes have increased massively from bringing eight sea freight containers into the UK every month, to 800. Most of our PPE is normally shipped by sea, although air freight has become increasingly important because of the urgency and demand for our products.
“More recently, this has been further complicated by China’s refusal to certify manufacturing quality. They are now marking dispatches ‘not for medical use’ to avoid being held accountable over existing CE standards. As a result we’ve had to change all of our packaging, on occasion up to six times a month, just to keep pace with these continually evolving details.
“At a global level there has been a big reduction in charter flights, as well as a 36% downturn in shipping availability. This has resulted in a competitive surge to find good freight-forwarding companies, one of which we have.
“In China, each airport has its own rules and regulations. For example, at Shanghai you can only pre-register stock 72 hours ahead of a flight. Meanwhile, in the UK we’ve had airlines impacted by bank holidays, furloughed staff and additional checks on goods coming into the country.
“All of this presents challenges getting our bulk deliveries out to distribution centres, such as Clipper Logistics in Daventry, or our clients like NHS Scotland – but we’re continuing to meet targets and get the job done.”
Despite all of this activity there is no room for complacency in the face of increasing market demand, which threatens to outstrip supply for the foreseeable future. Looking ahead, Sarah believes that adequate PPE take-up by business and continuing to follow social distancing guidelines remains crucial.
“Before the pandemic hit Full Support was supplying 95% market share of FFP3 respirators,” explains Sarah. “That initial stock has been used up and we’re now starting production of FFP3 respirator masks, the highest level of protection available to those caring for COVID-19 patients, at our Northamptonshire factory later in the year.”
So what does the average person not understand about PPE? “Regulations,” Sarah adds. “There have been lots of people and businesses wanting to help hospitals by repurposing what they do to create PPE, without realising there are specific standards and testing that has to be adhered to.
“Most PPE is designed to be used just once and then disposed of. There are some products that are re-useable, but these are often intended for long-term use in specialist environments. With the greatest respect there’s no way a member of the public or a company using a standard 3D printer can achieve this with immediate affect.
“One of the great ironies of this pandemic is that individuals and small businesses who’ve produced home-made PPE are often having their creations accepted by health agencies, while fully-certified companies such as our own are continuing to face rigorous checking on all of our products.
“Any businesses purchasing PPE need to use the same financial judgement they would with any transaction. If they’re pre-paying and sourcing from overseas they need to ensure the product will actually turn up. The best solution is to use a reputable UK company offering little to no risk because it makes sense to order stock from within the country. Keep in mind that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”
All of which leads to the subject of whether PPE in the workplace is the new normal, and how businesses of different sizes and structures can make the best decisions on how to keep their staff and clients safe.
The choices to be made are clear, notes Sarah: “Businesses need protection across their individual sites against what is essentially a clinical problem.
“By talking to our clients we understand their working environment and the number of staff involved. There are some straightforward solutions, like staggering lunchtimes and implementing social distancing within workspaces. Once we’ve discussed areas of potential exposure we can then advise on eyewear, respiratory and workwear PPE needs.
“How long this approach will be required is very hard to tell at the moment. Everything depends on the pandemic, and how government-led legislation and requirements develop. Clearly, employers have a duty of care to risk-assess their workplace and any staff who have to operate in close proximity, whether unloading boxes or preparing food, require certain levels of protection.
“Full Support Group is now expanding to supply other industrial and consumer needs across the UK and we’ve produced value-add packs of PPE for use by families, retailers and organisations which could include everything from schools and care homes, through to petrol stations, public transport, hairdressers and sports facilities.
“Affordable prices married to high-quality products continue to prove a winning formula and we’re now delivering greater volumes of PPE through vending machines and other point of sale locations.
“No matter what personal protection is used the key message that everyone must remember is to ‘always wash your hands!’ This simple action is a key weapon in the fight against COVID-19 and will help us all emerge from this crisis.”