How procurement within the NHS can adapt and learn from the Coronavirus pandemic

How procurement within the NHS can adapt and learn from the Coronavirus pandemic

Once the UK enters the ‘new normal’ and we’ve all had time to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, one aspect that will undoubtedly be discussed and debated is the procurement and distribution of equipment, in particular, PPE, to the NHS. 

Whilst there have been reports of doctors and nurses having to use make-shift masks and making use of donations from the wider public, there is no doubt that NHS procurement should be proud of the way they have handled the situation. It can be argued that challenges within supply chain have not come from those working in procurement; more the systemic challenges the public sector has had with the way it procures its good and services.

So what can NHS procurement learn from the Coronavirus pandemic?

The NHS has shown before that is able to relax its procurement structure in a time of need, but could there be more room for flexibility? When it comes to procurement, there are a number of potential systemic challenges that public sector procurement could face that have existed way before COVID-19 – some of which may have caused problems when the NHS supply chain came under strain.

The Challenges

  • Too many options – Whilst lots of choice is usually a good thing. Procurement is not necessarily equipped to deal with a high number of small suppliers, despite the encouragement to do so. Even though there are more SMEs on the procurement frameworks than ever before, large contracts tend to still go to large suppliers.


  • Inflexibility to the situation – During a crisis as big as a global pandemic, this is the time for creative thinking and flexible approaches, but can procurement sometimes get caught in the ‘by the book and numbers’ approach?


  • Slow to meet demand – Many British manufacturers were ready to support the NHS but found it difficult to talk to the right people. The COVID-19 pandemic may have highlighted the difficulty of communication channels for businesses and public sector procurement.


What can be done to address these challenges?

  • Agility - More agile procurement for crises such as this would be a better option. A flexible and streamlined approach that can be activated whenever it is needed for action would speed up response time.


  • Standardisation – More standard frameworks and working processes will make for an easier route to scalability and make it easier for smaller suppliers to win contracts.


  • Education – Fresh and improved education for procurement professionals within the NHS on the procurement frameworks available to use would speed up reaction and supply times.

Whilst it is easy to highlight potential issues following an unprecedented global pandemic, this could be a good opportunity for both the NHS and public sector procurement to reflect on its current structure and frameworks.

It has to be said that procurement professionals working within the NHS have done a fantastic job whilst working with imperfect knowledge and already strained supply levels, whilst in the midst of an unprecedented crisis – but does it also leave room for reflection and improvement?