Back to Our Roots: Making Gowns for the NHS
Over the past 12 weeks, the Agua team has moved to support the National Health Service and deploy British factories to make PPE. It’s been a challenging experience in many ways, but extremely rewarding too
The original Agua factory in Lancashire, photographed in the 1980s.
The past few weeks and months have posed huge challenges for businesses in all corners of our industry, and of course throughout the wider economy. As many other independent companies will know, some challenges have been more rewarding to overcome than others. At Agua, we’ve been working hard to support the fight against COVID-19 – and return to our roots at the same time.
When the first generation of the family, Maurice Phillips, founded Maurice Phillips & Co. in 1934, he made his name manufacturing hospital gowns from our then factory in Lancashire. We offered gowns and medical scrubs with our own UK manufacturing capacity right through to the 1990s, when Suzanne – Maurice’s granddaughter and the firm’s current owner – made the tough decision to wind down that part of the business in response to overwhelming competition from cheaper overseas production.
Heading into lockdown three or so months ago with the PPE crisis all over the headlines, we were better positioned than most to understand the critical shortage facing the NHS, and the scale of the problem. We’ve been working for weeks on-end to open up supply lines, source manufacturing capacity and produce effective PPE in volume. In the space of eight weeks, we’ve sourced the fabrics, pattern cutters and machinists required to produce waterproof and anti-microbial single-use barrier gowns in the UK, passing jobs to skilled British manufacturers in the process.
Thanks to Suzanne’s experience in gown production prior to our move into performance fabrics, we have quickly gained Cabinet Office and HSE approval. Our gowns meet the EN13795-1:2019 standard required for use in the NHS, and we’ve also had the gowns approved by Infection Control in many NHS Trusts. It’s been a huge undertaking and the sharpest pivot our business has ever made, but it’s been an immensely rewarding thing to do. So far, we’ve received orders for 150,000 gowns with the hope of more come.
While we’re pleased with this progress, there’s another side to this story. The pandemic has revealed the unfortunate state of British garment manufacturing in dramatic terms; the UK has sadly lost almost all its capacity to make specialised garments like medical apparel. Even now we and other UK businesses are positioned to help, cheaper gowns have continued to arrive from overseas in recent weeks, some of which have failed the required tests on arrival – as reported in the media.
We’ve been working for weeks on-end to open up supply lines, source manufacturing capacity and produce effective PPE in volume. It’s been the sharpest pivot our business has ever undertaken
We’re hopeful that one of the positive side-effects of COVID-19 might be a return to localised, specialised manufacturing in some critical sectors within the UK as both businesses and the government reassess supply chains. If our manufacturing sector had been better positioned at the start of the pandemic, we’d have avoided significant cost and stress; both for key healthcare workers and those organisations who’ve been tasked with making up the PPE shortfall. Of course, this is part of a much wider conversation, and something that we’ll pick up on at a later date.
For now, we’re pleased to be contributing to the national effort to overcome COVID-19. We’re hopeful that we’ll continue to supply gowns to the NHS and scale up production in the coming weeks. We’ll keep you posted on our progress, and would like to hear from any NHS trusts or representatives that require our assistance in sourcing and making cost-effective PPE. You can reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.