Make PPE in Australia – or miss out
A global pandemic has dramatised our over-reliance on foreign-made medical supplies. Will this spark a revival of our crippled manufacturing sector?
For decades, a drive to lowest cost production has led Australia to out-source manufacture of medical equipment and medicines to other countries.
The COVID-19 outbreak has shown the folly of this approach – even to a federal government that happily waved goodbye to our car-manufacturing capacity.
The pandemic produced a steep rise in global demand for surgical masks, goggles, gloves, and gowns.
It depleted stockpiles, prompted significant price increases, and led to production backlogs of four to six months in fulfilling orders.
The consequences for Australian healthcare workers were highlighted in April when about 4500 medical staff signed an open letter demanding state and federal governments urgently provide more personal protective equipment (PPE).
They said they feared for themselves, their families and vulnerable patients and were reduced to buying N95 ventilator masks from eBay.
In some pharmacies the cost of a single N95 mask jumped from $1.30 to $38.50, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Australian authorities scrambled to source overseas equipment but came up against a shortage of air transport; most cargo is carried in passenger planes, which were grounded by travel bans.
Government departments appealed to local manufacturers capable of switching their production lines to medical equipment and supplies.
The list of required products included surgical gowns, gloves, goggles, hand sanitiser, clinical waste bags, waste bag ties, blood and fluid spill kits, mask fit test kits and thermometers.
Some companies were able to answer the government’s call.
Four Australian manufacturers teamed up with an international medical technology company, using local supply chains, to make emergency beds designed for patients in respiratory distress.
ResMed ramped up ventilator production and had delivered more than 3000 ventilators to the federal government’s COVID-19 stockpile by late April.
Victorian company Med-Con, Australia’s only maker of medical masks, was also able to boost supply.
Family-owned Victorian business, Clets Linen, which normally specialises in linen and garments for hospitality and other industries, switched to provide 3,750 disposable isolation gowns in its first production run.
Is this the start of a new era of self-sufficiency?
Alison Pennington, an economist at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, described coronavirus as “the nail in the coffin” to Australia’s existing economic relationships.
“We’ve all had the thought that manufacturing is dirty, it’s old, we’re too slow and too expensive,” she told ABC News. “Things will be different now.”
Australia’s manufacturing sector has been shrinking for decades – from almost 30 per cent of gross domestic product in the 1960s to six per cent of GDP today.
The federal government has set up a manufacturing “taskforce” to advise it on how to “pivot” to local manufacturing in a post-COVID-19 world.
Blogger Don Sutherland, a retired organiser and educator for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), says if the government and its big business supporters are serious, this step is “a radical about-face”.
“Various Liberal–National Party governments have driven the slow and steady destruction of Australian manufacturing,” he points out.
“Of course, this came to a head a few years ago when then Treasurer Joe Hockey encouraged GM, Ford and Toyota to get out of car manufacturing in Australia.”
The taskforce comprises mostly corporate chiefs and one union representative – AMWU national secretary, Paul Bastian.
Bastian appealed to governments, industry and unions to collaborate on ways to maximise local participation in big infrastructure projects and industry sectors such as food, defence, mining and engineering.
Sutherland questions whether the government will heed Bastian’s appeal.
“The Morrison government is determined to extend the denial of workers’ and union rights in its planning for post pandemic recovery,” he says.