Emily Garside

29th April 2021


The Strengths and Weaknesses of the UK PPE Industry

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As the UK eases out of lockdown, now will be an interesting time to look at how industries affected by the pandemic will move forward.

One sector that has been under the spotlight over the last year is the manufacture and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly for use in the healthcare sector. While 2020 saw reports of shortages and quality issues, there has also been recent controversy about the lack of transparency in the government’s awarding of PPE contracts throughout the pandemic.

But although the industry has faced significant challenges there were also opportunities for companies to step up and find creative solutions to supply hospitals and other frontline workers with protective equipment. Those who failed to react risked being left behind even as other industries changed course to meet the demand.

More recently, with vaccinations signalling a potential end to the worst of the pandemic in the months to come, we are seeing how Covid-19 has arguably changed PPE use for the long term. How the industry’s key players will respond to these changes, both in a range of professional settings and among the general public, will be fascinating to monitor throughout 2021 and beyond.

Currently, 345 companies in Plimsoll’s UK Workwear & PPE industry analysis have been rated as “strong” according to the latest data. Whether all of these businesses will continue to thrive beyond the pandemic remains to be seen. Firms operating within the PPE sector, as well as its suppliers and customers, have much to gain by closely monitoring changes in the financial health of the industry as a whole.

While the pandemic undoubtedly increased demand for certain types of PPE – notably respiratory, hand and face protection – the knock-on effect of lockdowns as well as the subsequent interruption to economic cycles and supply chains has impacted end-users in the construction and manufacturing sectors. How quickly these can get back on track post-pandemic may be pivotal in areas such as fall protection, safety footwear and hearing protection.

The impact of Brexit on import and export markets is another potential pitfall for all areas of the PPE sector. But while much has been said about complications for many companies trading in and out of the UK, there have also been some positive stories in recent months, including Globus Group’s investments into new PPE plants in Scotland and North-West England. Investment into locally-produced equipment could prove essential to cover ongoing need, both in healthcare settings and for other sectors returning to working environments as COVID restrictions are eased.

Due to the increasing – and likely ongoing – use of disposable PPE, concerns are also emerging about its environmental impact. One paper from the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub estimates that if everyone in the UK were to use a single-use mask each day for a year it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste. While part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to deal with a sudden influx of medical waste from the general public (as opposed to the limited quantities currently produced in clinical settings), a real challenge exists for governments, as well as the waste management and PPE sectors themselves, to innovate ways to mitigate the impacts of this new reality.

Another issue that needs to be addressed by the PPE industry is the accessibility and inclusiveness of products, especially those being used in healthcare settings. The pandemic has highlighted a long-standing issue with the fit testing of PPE, with research finding traditional methods result in products suitable primarily for Caucasian males, potentially leaving others at greater risk of contamination. As 77% of NHS workers are female, it clearly makes both moral and financial sense for manufacturers to develop modern, high-quality PPE that allows all key workers to do their job safely and comfortably.

Rather than shying away from such important challenges, the most innovative companies will see them as huge opportunities to strive for new ways to fill gaps in the market for and create more sustainable, inclusive and high-quality products. Similarly, both suppliers and customers of the PPE supply chain must also pay attention to key players and stakeholders in the market.

Throughout the pandemic we have seen many companies have expand or pivot into PPE manufacturing in order to meet demand, for example Rototherm’s impressive shift into safety goggle manufacturing. With other such stories we may see some significant shifts in market share over the next few months: companies who have directed some – or all – of their activity may make this change more permanent, or decide to acquire an existing firm from within the sector.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that according to Plimsoll’s analysis, 122 companies in the Workwear & PPE sector have been classed as “highly attractive” for takeover. As most of these potential targets are at the smaller end of the market, we could already start see some of these change hands in the months to come, as businesses emerging from the worst of the pandemic start to make future plans.

In a fast-changing industry it will be more important than ever to monitor changes and keep up with the developments of the competition in order not to get left behind. Plimsoll provides a convenient and easy-to-use benchmarking tool that allows you to do just that, without extensive financial knowledge or hours to invest in analysing industry trends.

For more information, about Plimsoll’s Workwear & PPE industry analysis, as well as reports on related sectors, visit plimsoll.co.uk.

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