Vaccine success needs a second ‘call to arms’ and a manufacturing minister to avert PPE fiasco repeat

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From the Unite website www.unitetheunion.org

The country’s leading manufacturing union, Unite, has today (Friday 13 November) urged the prime minister to appoint a cabinet minister to bring urgently needed coordination to the production and supply of vaccines in the battle to defeat Covid-19.

The union is also urging the government to issue a second ‘call to arms’ to UK manufacturing to rally to produce the vaccine, but fears that without senior ministerial leadership put in place urgently the UK will see a repeat of the PPE ‘fiasco’, when the country was forced to compete with other nations to purchase core equipment once manufactured domestically.

Unite is also calling on the government to place medicine manufacturing on a par with energy, water supply and defence as a matter of national security.  

Unite has identified two particular areas of concern in relation to the coronavirus vaccine: firstly, the production of the borosilicate glass needed to contain the virus; and secondly, the deep freeze storage capacity needed to maintain the vaccine at -70 degrees throughout its distribution, from manufacture to the doctor’s surgery. Until 2007, the UK produced the specialist borosilicate glass required for vaccine vials in Sunderland. The work then went to France and hundreds of UK jobs were lost.

According to Unite, UK manufacturing has the expertise to deliver on both elements, as it proved when the sector responded to the ventilator and PPE challenge earlier this year, but there needs to be ministerial leadership and a national ‘call to arms’ in order to coordinate to necessary work plan. 

Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary for manufacturing, said: “UK manufacturing stands ready to make good on the promise this scientific breakthrough offers but the absence of ministerial leadership will hamper our efforts to get the job done.

“Our fear is that unless there is one clear voice around the government table tasked with getting this product manufactured and safely delivered the length and breadth of the country, we will lag behind other nations in protecting our people and getting the economy moving again.

“We must not repeat the earlier fiasco with PPE that saw the UK government chasing around the world looking for kit. We know we have limited deep freeze warehouse and distribution capacity and no GP’s surgery in the country has facilities to store the vaccine at the required -70 degrees. We must address this now.

“To meet this challenge, we need a national effort, bringing our nations, workers and industry together with common purpose. We can and we must get ahead of the game; restart production of the glass and necessary vials alongside building the deep freeze capacity we know we’ll need in the coming period.

“It is not for the want of skills. We have incredible, talented manufacturing workers desperate to be put to work to recover the country’s health and industries. Some stuck at home on furlough while others are on short-time work. This is a terrible waste of valuable human talent at the precise moment they can be called upon to serve our country.  

“Medicines and the health of our people should be seen in the same way as energy, water supply and defence – as a matter of national security requiring sovereign UK capabilities.

“Our manufacturing workers can also assist with the global effort required to defeat a virus that knows no national boundaries and respects no one. This is a global pandemic and we all have a responsibility to eradicate it in the name of humanity.

“There must be a call to arms. The country needs a vaccine supply and distribution plan and a senior minister to deliver it. Manufacturing workers and businesses will rally and stand ready as we did before, so we appeal to Boris Johnson, don’t miss this moment.”