No one should be criticised for not being able to see the future but criticism is valid when a vision of a likely future is laid out and those responsible do not take action. This is the accusation against the government and its seeming inability to provide the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS and later the social care community. The revelations in the recent Channel 4 news broadcast about a warehouse full of out of date equipment has done nothing to help its cause.

Of course the lack of PPE is a multifaceted issue, much more complicated than anyone outside the industry would necessarily understand. There is a global shortage as demand has exploded on the back of the pandemic. All PPE isn’t the same either. Different infections can require different types of equipment, with different types of materials and it is a delicate balance between keeping what is needed and anticipated demand.

Yet we don’t have to look very far for a solution. Handling complex supply chains, with variable demand, differing use by dates and storage conditions across tens of thousands of products is something that is handled in locations up and down the country every day. They are known as supermarkets.

A large store will have upwards of 40,000 different products, each with their own idiosyncratic conditions to manage. Demand data from the tills are used to understand how the products are being bought and this will be reflected in stock and replenishment levels. The shelves are stocked to ensure the newer stuff is at the back and the older stuff to the front. At this level we are talking about store cupboard logistics.

Yes, supermarkets do throw stuff away, but mostly with very short sell by dates. They are far from perfect organizations yet they are renowned experts in logistics and supply chain management. Having their involvement in the current PPE problems would have gone some way to alleviating the situation.

The issue with having a warehouse full of outdated PPE is another thing altogether. Either those running the operation were not aware of the problem, or were aware and chose not to do anything about it. I don’t know which is worse.

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