The Mail Force charity is today celebrating two truly outstanding achievements.
Thanks to our generous readers and supporters, donations have hit an astonishing £11million – and it has now provided more than 30million pieces of personal protective equipment to the nation.
The landmarks were reached just 100 days after its first delivery to the coronavirus front line.
What’s more – as of this weekend – the majority of the PPE that the charity is handing over is being produced in the UK. Yesterday, a fleet of forklifts began loading the first truckload of British-made Mail Force masks at a new plant near Rotherham.
Until now, the vast majority of these essential products have had to be flown in from China, the only nation manufacturing them in sufficient quantities. In the coming weeks, however, the charity will be delivering no less than six million Yorkshire-made Type 2R masks to the NHS.
Thanks to our generous readers and supporters, donations have hit an astonishing £11million – and it has now provided more than 30million pieces of personal protective equipment to the nation
Type 2R – the all-important ‘R’ stands for fluid resistant – must conform to the highest hospital standards. At the same time, 500,000 Mail Force face shields – ordered from another Yorkshire manufacturer – are also on their way to the NHS’s main distribution centre.
It means that after just 100 days, the charity – created by this newspaper and backed by its readers – is now at the forefront of the Government’s attempts to build up a sustainable home-grown PPE industry.
While Mail Force has been proud to arrange several airlifts and convoys of masks and coveralls from all over the globe, these new acquisitions – worth more than £1.5million – mean that more than half of our PPE will have come from these shores.
Next week, for example, workers at Griffin Mill in Blackburn will complete their final batch of Mail Force hospital aprons. Our original request was for 1.5million but they proved so useful the charity increased the order to 15million.
And throughout it all, the level of donations has exceeded all expectations. To put this in context, Civil Society News, the voice of the charity sector, reports that the combined total raised by all British newspapers in last year’s Christmas appeals came to £4.5million. With £11million raised, Mail Force has now more than doubled that sum.
Machine operator Hannah Walsh at Bluetree Group in Rotherham that produces masks for the NHS through the Mail Force Charity prepares a wagon load of masks for delivery to hospitals
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, applauded the charity’s latest venture. He said: ‘The generosity of Mail Force will be hugely appreciated by all those who receive this British-made kit across the heath service.’
While the majority of our PPE has been delivered to the NHS, millions of items have also been despatched to charities like Mencap and the Salvation Army. Karl Wilding, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations thanked readers.
He said: ‘Charities have been squeezed hard for cash during Covid. Every penny counts more than ever, so getting help from Mail Force with the PPE they need to do their work makes a real difference.’
Mail Force’s new masks are being made by Bluetree, a fast-growing printing company based near Rotherham. It is one of the businesses selected by the Government’s PPE ‘tsar’, Lord Deighton, to boost home-grown provision of essential kit.
Yesterday, health minister Edward Argar paid tribute to Mail Force and revealed the Government would be putting in its own order to Bluetree. ‘This comes as a further boost to the ongoing national efforts to continue delivering the PPE our front line needs,’ he said. ‘It is great to see UK manufacturers once again rising to the challenge.’
As of this weekend, the majority of the PPE that the charity is handing over is being produced in the UK. Yesterday, a fleet of forklifts began loading the first truckload of British-made Mail Force masks at a new plant near Rotherham
Bluetree staff voiced their delight at their venture. ‘There’s a great team spirit and Mail Force donors can rest assured that these really are the best masks you can get,’ said machine operator Hannah Walsh, 25.
Mail Force has also ordered 500,000 face shields from Doncaster-based Kingsbury Press, another printing company which is retraining staff to provide quality equipment for healthcare workers both at home and abroad.
Like every piece of Mail Force PPE, they have been approved and pre-tested by Department of Health inspectors.
The Government has come under fire for some contracts awarded for PPE at the height of the pandemic, notably a £150million order for FFP2 respiratory masks. Unlike surgical masks, which come with ear loops, FFP2 masks must come with head loops. However, a cargo of 50million arrived without them.
It is impossible to quantify the number of doctors, nurses, care workers, charity professionals and volunteers who have benefited from Mail Force. It has certainly been an extraordinary 100 days. And while no one has the faintest idea what is coming next, donors can be in no doubt about one thing: the nation is all the stronger and safer for your generosity.
Made in Britain, the heroes who rose to the PPE challenge
Had it not been for the coronavirus, the shiny new building on the edge of Rotherham would be busy churning out vast quantities of glossy promotional material for shops and trade fairs.
Instead, it is now one of the fastest-growing manufacturers of personal protective equipment in the UK.
This weekend, Bluetree will have more than 100 staff – most of them new recruits – working round-the-clock on several production lines producing top-quality fluid-resistant surgical masks. By the end of next month, the plan is to have 400 employees churning out many millions of them every week.
And at the front of the queue for their first major consignment, I am glad to say, is Mail Force.
At a time of relentless doom and gloom on the commercial front, it is truly uplifting to see so much activity here on this sprawling business park in Wath upon Dearne.
The Bluetree workforce are not just pleased to be gainfully employed in a time of uncertainty. They are delighted to be part of a major new push to make Britain more self-sufficient in PPE ahead of that dreaded second wave of infections.
‘My brother works as a paramedic with the local ambulance service. So it feels good to be doing my bit too,’ says project manager Becky Taylor, 28. ‘It’s certainly made my Mum pretty proud – and she works for the NHS too.’
One of the recurring grumbles from the army of generous readers who have backed the Mail Force campaign to provide crucial PPE for Britain’s health workers is that the vast majority of this equipment has to be imported – mainly from China. It is an unavoidable fact of life. However, Mail Force has always been keen to buy British when we can.
Having proudly provided more than 15million hospital aprons to the NHS from a factory in Blackburn, the charity is now delighted to be procuring truckloads of quality masks – six million of them – from the other side of the Pennines. And they all come from a new print works the size of an airport terminal which has been transformed into a mask factory.
The interior is divided into a series of hermetically-sealed ‘clean rooms’ with several machines in each one and two or three people in sterile clothing operating each one. I can only watch through an observation window as the men and women in white coats box up the finished products.
It looks like a relatively simple weaving process involving three giant loo rolls. Each feeds a strand of material into a central belt where they are pressed together. Somewhere along the way, the string ear loops are attached and out come finished masks in batches of 50. It is the job of one person to run a gloved finger through the 50 loops on either side and give them a gentle twang to ensure a firm connection.
The three loo rolls are all very different. One provides the blue outer layer – the hydrophobic splash-resistant coating designed to repel droplets on the outside. The inner ‘hydrophilic’ layer absorbs the wearer’s own moisture – saliva and so on.
In between is the crucial ‘melt-blown’ layer which acts as the filter. A non-woven polymer, it contains an electrical charge which must catch at least 98 per cent of particles (the filtration rate is actually 99.9 per cent for these masks).
All three layers, it turns out, are welded together not by heat or by pressure but by microwaves. And these masks have had to go through exhaustive quality tests at laboratories in the UK and all over Europe to ensure compliance with NHS standards.
Those who think that one blue mask looks much like another will soon notice the difference when they have to wear one all day.
‘My brother says he much prefers our masks because the ear loops are softer than the imports,’ says Becky Taylor. I myself notice these masks make my glasses less prone to steaming up.
With a whole new workforce hired in addition to the existing 350 employees, Bluetree’s latest challenge is not PPE production but parking.
‘We’re just trying to work out where everyone is going to put their cars,’ says James Kinsella, co-founder of what is now a major northern enterprise. Not bad for an operation which kicked off with a single computer printer back in 2009.
James and his business partner, Adam Carnell, both 32, have been friends since boyhood (both attended Uppingham, the public school which also produced Sir Charles Dunstone and David Ross, billionaire co-founders of Carphone Warehouse).
Both went on to Bristol University and, after graduating, they decided to set up in business together. They drew up a shortlist of possible commercial opportunities, including a half-baked plan to start a canal boat delivery service. In the end, they settled on printing and bought a discounted printer in a sale at PC World.
Having spent £500 on the domain name ‘instantprint.co.uk’, they set to work in a tiny office in Newcastle upon Tyne producing cut-price flyers for small businesses.
Just three years later, having acquired bigger and better machines and a workforce of 20, they joined forces with Bluetree, a Rotherham-based printer of larger formats such as exhibition stands. While the old management retired, the two young entrepreneurs kept expanding with new machinery and product ranges.
Some people go to business school to learn this stuff. ‘There just wasn’t time for that,’ laughs Adam, adding that there is even less time now that he has two small children.
At the start of this year, the plan was to double the size of the site by opening a new 45,000 square feet unit for larger products. When the entire market disappeared, James and Adam did not sit around feeling sorry for themselves.
HERE’S HOW TO DONATE
Mail Force Charity has been launched with one aim to help support NHS staff, volunteers and care workers fight back against Covid-19 in the UK.
Mail Force is a separate charity established and supported by the Daily Mail and General Trust.
The money raised will fund essential equipment required by the NHS and care workers.
This equipment is vital in protecting the heroic staff whilst they perform their fantastic work in helping the UK overcome this pandemic.
If we raise more money than is needed for vital Covid-19 equipment, we will apply all funds to support the work of the NHS in other ways.
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While their smaller printing presses were turned over to producing Covid literature – ‘Stop the Spread’ leaflets and millions of those ‘One Way’ stickers we see on floors everywhere – the two directors also began looking at face masks.
The chief obstacle to producing them in large quantities was sourcing the necessary amounts of ‘melt-blown’. It was only made in relatively small quantities by one Scottish company and the Government quickly snapped up the lot.
So James and Adam set about finding their own supply lines in – where else? – China. ‘It wasn’t easy,’ says James, ‘so we decided to look at making our own.’
They have now invested in new machinery which does exactly that. A separate section of the new plant has been set aside and the machines are currently being installed.
By next month, Bluetree will be importing ‘melt-blown’ not from China but from the other side of ‘Unit B’ in Wath upon Dearne. As the signs all over this place say in big bold letters: ‘Made In Yorkshire’.
There is the same can-do sense of Yorkshire pride a short drive away near Doncaster. I visit Kingsbury Press, another resourceful printing company which has turned its hand to meeting the needs of the moment – in this case, face shields. Before the pandemic, the company was producing high-end books and literature for some of the world’s grandest brands, like Claridge’s and Graff Diamonds.
Now, they are cheerfully mass-producing face shields – adjustable visors – for Mail Force and the NHS.
They use a clever design which minimises the amount of plastic and avoids fiddly elastic at the back. Instead, the shield is adjusted by a laminated fastener while a layer of air-tight foam holds the screen away from the face.
Again, the production line is staffed by locals who are pleased to be doing something to make a tangible difference. ‘I was a recruitment consultant until I got let go and I didn’t qualify for furlough,’ says Jack Bentley, 26, from Newark, as he separates blocks of adhesive foam. ‘But it’s nice to be doing something worthwhile.’
Production is up to 300,000 a week with the capacity for many more. ‘We sent some over to the USA. It’s surprising that there are very few people making these things to FDA (US government) standards so we are now looking to start exporting,’ says director Clive Wickland.
Time and again during this pandemic, I have stood on windy British runways watching PPE coming in to land. It will certainly be a wonderful moment to see some of it going in the opposite direction.