Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.
David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II was a revelation to millions in the UK. The iconic scene of a turtle struggling with plastic helped to galvanise a movement against single use plastic and challenged our permissive, throwaway culture.
Since then, we have seen a rush to introduce reusable bottles and bags, and a movement away from single use plastic. However, the current Coronavirus pandemic shows there is still more to be done, and a failure to tackle this could have a huge effect on the health and national security of our country.
Rather than washing and sterilising hospital gowns, and then reusing them, the NHS currently uses disposable gowns. Our approach has put pressure on our supply chain and leaves us at the mercy of foreign powers.
We know there is a constant need for more gowns – an essential piece of kit without which no operation can take place – and we have seen huge efforts by the Government and others to acquire more during the current pandemic. Michael Gove has told us that by early May over two million gowns had been sent out across England but, with the typical hospital trust getting through a couple of thousand a day, this is putting significant pressure on the system.
In a normal situation, there would easily be enough gowns – despite the ecological damage – but, in the face of a global pandemic, supplies are being snatched up across the world, and manufacturers are producing less.
Many of these gowns are coming from countries like the People’s Republic of China, whose openness in dealing with Coronavirus has been called into serious question, or Turkey, where the gowns are not of the quality required. We are now over-reliant not on our traditional allies, but on countries we cannot trust with our interests.
But gowns are only one part of this prevalent throwaway culture. It applies to scissors, scalpels and many items of smaller equipment. Yes, it might be easier to dispose of them, rather go to the the short-term expense and effort of properly sterilising and cleaning equipment, but it does make our NHS far more reliant on foreign countries.
We have the skills and the expertise right here in the UK to make high quality, hospital grade reusable equipment. Many towns and villages across South Yorkshire have a large textile heritage; Jaeger used to have a factory near Dinnington and Thurcroft in Rother Valley had a textiles factory.
These locations, often closed due to deindustrialisation, could be brought back online, making this much needed PPE and, at the same time, bring back much needed jobs in the North.
Our region has a long and rich industrial heritage but, unfortunately, this has been somewhat neglected since manufacturing moved abroad. Years down the line, however, we are finding that this was a short-sighted move. This has also contributed to a loss of domestic skills, exposed us to potentially inferior products, and made us heavily over-reliant on imports, all of which mean that we are exposed in times of crisis. The argument for producing our own reusable PPE in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is irrefutable.
We can, however, go further in Rother Valley and the North. The production of reusable PPE in such places as Rother Valley ties in with the North’s vital role in the United Kingdom’s green recovery. Coal is on its way out and, just as the public are turning against single use plastics, they are also turning against fossil fuels.
‘Renewable’ is the new watchword in energy, and this must work in tandem with recycled and reusable products. We have a fantastic opportunity to make the North a hub for renewable energy. My vision is not only for PPE and other vital supplies to be manufactured in our region, but also the materials and parts needed for renewable power.
This would create high quality jobs and boost the local economy, protect the nation’s energy supply, and bolster UK plc as we export our technology to the world, whilst cutting our emissions and delivering lower prices to consumers. In this new age of environmental awareness, I believe that reducing our throwaway culture is relevant for both goods and energy. The North can and must seize this opportunity.
To be a true British health service, we should not be reliant on the whims of foreign powers. We need to be able to stand proud on our own two feet. In times of crisis we must be self-reliant, not only for our planet but for our national security as well. Going forward we should evaluate the feasibility of equipping the NHS with reusable equipment, where possible and beneficial. By being reliant on cheap disposable, throwaway gowns and equipment we are not only creating an environmental catastrophe, but one that fundamentally damages our independence and our national security.