Britain has appointed the former Goldman Sachs investment banker who led the country's 2012 Olympic Games planning to organise the domestic manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers treating coronavirus patients.
The government has faced severe criticism from doctors and health workers over shortages of equipment, including masks, visors and gowns, and the suggestion that some items might have to be re-used if supplies run out.
Paul Deighton, who was chief executive of the London organising committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, was appointed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday.
"He will lead a singular and relentless focus on PPE as the country's top manufacturing priority, with the full weight of the government behind him," Mr Hancock said.
The government and trade bodies have cited competing international demand for PPE from other nations hit by the global health crisis as the main reason for the shortage. Many items are primarily bought from China.
Mr Deighton's unpaid role will be to scale up production domestically, where brands like Barbour and Burberry have switched factory lines from high-end fashion to PPE.
"Countries around the world face unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment and this necessitates an equally unprecedented domestic manufacturing response," said Mr Deighton.
On Saturday, the British Medical Association (BMA) warned that the UK risked running out of protective equipment for its hospital staff as half of the doctors working in high-risk areas reported supply shortages in a survey.
Long-sleeved disposable gowns and goggles were in short supply for NHS staff working at some of the most at-risk hospitals in the UK, a report by the association said.
In a survey of 6,000 respondents, two-thirds said they faced shortages or no eye protection at all, and nearly half said they felt pressure often or sometimes to work without adequate protection.
Doctors told the association that they were being “thrown to the wolves” and should not be forced to choose between continuing working or keeping themselves and their family safe.
The snapshot survey came after reports that several NHS staff died from the virus.
“Two months into the Covid-19 crisis in Britain, we shouldn’t still be hearing that doctors feel unprotected when they go to work,” BMA Council chairman Chaand Nagpaul said in a statement.
“We renew our call for the government to work with manufacturers to ramp up domestic supply. Too many doctors and healthcare staff have already lost their lives. We cannot afford to risk losing any more.”
The UK reported 888 more coronavirus deaths on Saturday, taking the total to more than 15,000. The number of confirmed cases in the UK has exceeded 109,000.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has faced a barrage of criticism over its response to the pandemic, including questions on a delay in lockdown, lack of widespread testing and on insufficient protective equipment for healthcare professionals.
Mr Hancock told the UK’s health committee on Friday that the government was doing everything it could to get protective equipment to frontline workers in the NHS.
“I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and have PPE fall from the sky in large quantities and be able to answer your question about when shortages will be resolved,” he said.
“But given that we have a global situation in which there is less PPE in the world than the world needs, it’s going to be a huge pressure point.”
The UK’s largest trade union, which represents healthcare workers, warned that NHS staff could quit if the situation does not change.
“Managers must be truly honest with health workers and their union reps over the weekend,” Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said.
“If gowns run out, staff in high-risk areas may well decide that it’s no longer safe for them to work.”