British hospitals and key frontline staff have been forced to turn to homemade personal protective equipment as the government struggles to secure supplies.
Boris Johnson’s administration has come under fire as stocks of masks, gowns and visors have dwindled.
The crisis pushed the government to issue new advice that reusable gowns or long-sleeved laboratory coats could be used in the absence of fluid-repellent full-length gowns – sparking criticism from the British Medical Association.
But, as the government scrambles to secure supplies, stories are emerging of the people stepping in to fill the vacuum.
Meet Jacqui Hargreaves, a design technology teacher at a school in Leighton Buzzard, a town just north of London. She has made more than a thousand visors in just over a fortnight and they are being used by frontline staff across the country.
She told Euronews that a parent of a student at Vandyke Upper School – where she teaches – had initially contacted her saying they worked in a local pharmacy, needed protection, and didn’t know what to do.
As a result, she set to work making what has now been dubbed the Vandyke Visor with her husband Steve and daughter Alice.
“We’re lucky enough to have a building at the end of the garden that we had turned into a workshop,” Hargreaves said, adding that she collected other materials and a 3D printer “through the back door” from her school.
Using a specification posted online, she then worked to modify the materials and the design to make a more robust visor that gave better protection.
She said the company online invented “the idea for the headband and a laminated pouch that goes on the front, but it doesn’t work very well. They were disposable.”
The NHS visors have a soft pad and are designed for single-use, she said, despite hearing that a depleted supply had left staff using them repeatedly.
“So we started from a completely different tack,” she said. “Our design covers the head and the forehead, and can be washed in soapy water.”
What started as a project making a few dozen items for the community, is now operating on a much larger scale.
Hargreaves and her family have made more than 1,500 visors for hospitals in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, London, Oxford – and for a doctor’s family in Manchester.
Care homes have also been contacting the teacher for help, while she said all three police forces in her area had been given the Vandyke Visors, too.
“I’ve had people standing at my front door in tears,” Hargreaves said. “Some people are refusing to go to work because they don’t feel safe.
“Care homes appear to have nothing. They are the people who are making up our biggest requests at the moment.
“We thought we would be supplying people in the community only. We did not expect hospitals to also be contacting us.
“I can’t believe that people in ITU [intensive care] and COVID-active wards are using homemade masks. It is unbelievable.”
The British government has faced increasing criticism in recent weeks following a delayed shipment of PPE from Turkey, and reports of hospitals being down to their last 24-48 hours-worth of protective gowns.
Hargreaves joked that her credit card had “taken a pounding” from the project as she had initially been footing the bill for materials herself after the school’s materials ran out.
But – now she is being supported by a local organisation – the Leighton Linslade Rotary Club – and a JustGiving page that has raised more than £4,000.
The Rotary Club’s Peter Banwell said the organisation had been working to secure extra materials and help to upscale the development of the visors.
Having just driven back from Leicestershire to look into some new plastics for Hargreaves, Banwell said: “We’re proud of what she and what Steve are doing. It is amazing what they have managed to do in their back garden.
“The credit goes to her,” he added. “We are so impressed by her imagination and her determination.”
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“What we liked particularly was the innovative way she made the product – we looked at various others we could support but we were particularly impressed by the enthusiasm.
“And they had changed the design to be reusable. We could see it would have a wide use.”
Vandyke Upper School headmaster Tim Carroll told Euronews the Hargreaves family and his design technology department had been doing a “terrific job”.
“Lots of members of the public and school staff have generously contributed to a Just Giving fund and several local companies have donated materials so that production continues,” he said.
“One of the few positive things to come out of this health crisis is the community spirit and with so many people wanting to do what they can to help.”
A local doctor asks for help
Further north in Derby, business owner Carl Woods has also been making visors for healthcare workers with his eight 3D printers.
He, too, modified a standard design for the visor after speaking to local NHS workers and finding out the shield often fitted too close to the face and was awkward for spectacle wearers.
“It started off because there was a need,” Woods told Euronews, adding: “I’m a firm believer if you can, you should.”
Making the visors, he said, also started after accompanying his father to a local health practice, where the doctor said they needed some help.
Like the Hargreaves family, what started out as a small project ended up with Carl printing visors in batches for hospitals across the region.
Speaking specifically about Royal Derby Hospital, he added: “That hospital saved my dad’s life three years ago, and these are the doctors and nurses that these [visors] are going to.”
Woods has funded the first 1,000 visors himself but says crowdfunding and local donations have since helped out.
He says it would be nice for governments to recognise communities that are helping out by donating and creating PPE.
Hargreaves also wanted to highlight the community effort she had experienced since the beginning of the outbreak.
She said: “I couldn’t do this if people weren’t donating, giving materials and getting involved.
“We couldn’t possibly continue without them. The most important thing is to say thank you.”
Most of all, she added: “I want kids to see if you get involved and work together, you can make a difference.”