Is the UK too reliant on overseas manufacturers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had ramifications on several UK sectors. Manufacturing and supply chains struggled due to import bans and staff shortages.

Many say that the UK manufacturing industry, in particular, failed to provide key workers with necessary PPE equipment and ventilators.

This failure to provide such vital equipment has exposed frailties with offshore supply chains, as well as the shortages within UK manufacturing. Is the UK too reliant on overseas manufacturers when it comes to such vital equipment?

The UK’s usual offshore supply chains were unable to meet capacity for PPE equipment, following the sudden surge in demand due to the pandemic. The UK government’s stockpile of PPE equipment was also deemed inadequate, again raising questions over the capabilities of UK manufacturing.

This meant the UK was forced to rely on further supplies from other countries, including an 84-tonne shipment of PPE from Turkey, which in itself was difficult due to export bans. Just one UK manufacturer produced adequate medical gowns made from the necessary fluid-resistant material.

Following this failure to provide medical workers with such important equipment, the idea of reshoring the production of these goods back to the UK has gained traction. For decades the UK has relied heavily on overseas manufacturing and supply chains, mainly due to the cheaper labour and manufacturing costs.

However, inadequacies with reliability and quality with overseas supply chains and manufacturing have been highlighted due to the pandemic, having devastating effects on not only the economy but public health.

Over-reliance on overseas manufacturing

When it comes to production, globalisation brings benefits such as competitive prices. Supply chains are also reliable, assuming demand for the product is unlikely to fluctuate. Yet if there is a sudden surge for the product, overseas manufacturers and supply chains can struggle to keep up with demand.

It is near impossible to predict the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet for such necessary goods in an industry as vital as healthcare, surely a larger amount of PPE should be manufactured in the UK, with public health taking priority over short-term financial gains.

The production of equipment overseas is often cheaper due to more leniency over health and safety and environmental concerns. This can have an effect on the quality of the final product. The 84-tonne shipment of PPE equipment from Turkey included 400,000 medical gowns, which were described as ‘unusable’ (1).

Relying on overseas supply chains and manufacturers when it comes to such vital goods is a risk. Production of these goods should be brought back to the UK, in order to avoid similar issues with overseas manufacturers and supply chains should a similar pandemic occur in future.

Are UK manufacturers capable of adapting and meeting demand?

The argument for manufacturing and industry to return to these shores is nothing new, recent events have seen this notion gain momentum. Advocates for this state the quality of the final product and streamlined distribution of goods as the main reasons for reshoring.

Yet critics argue UK manufacturers would struggle to replicate the efficiency of overseas manufacturers and meet consumer demand. There may be a transition period needed for manufacturers to adapt in order to produce goods at the scale overseas manufacturers are capable of. Yet, during the pandemic, many UK manufacturers showed versatility under pressure to contribute to supplying medical workers with vital PPE equipment.

Due to frailties with overseas manufacturing and supply chains, as well the governments inadequate PPE stockpile, UK manufacturers took responsibility to produce PPE and ventilators. Manufacturers from various industries, including Dyson, Jaguar and John Lewis, were able to quickly manufacture and distribute high-quality equipment for key workers (2).

The UK manufacturing industry may not be as dominant as it was during the industrial revolution, yet it still remains the 9th largest manufacturing nation in the world (3), despite offshoring a large quantity of production.

If UK manufacturers were able to adapt to produce such unfamiliar, important equipment at such short notice, there’s no reason they can’t transition towards a long-term future with reshoring the production of goods.

Completely reshoring UK manufacturing may be a step too far. In the past, relying on offshore production for products such as clothing and technology has benefitted the UK, completely switching production of these products to the UK may not be necessary.

However, with essential industries such as healthcare, there is no doubt if the UK manufactures more equipment on these shores this would have assisted the country during the pandemic. Post COVID-19, gradually shifting the production of critical components back to the UK should be a priority.

UK manufacturers have already shown their adaptability when it comes to production. With a more long-term approach to the production of these components, this could put the UK in a better position should another similar pandemic occur.