Coronavirus and the chemical industry’s response
After my article last week explaining how the EU’s chemical regulations are hampering industry’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, the situation has altered very quickly in the UK, EU and other parts of the world, so I thought I’d bring you up to date with the situation, as far as I am aware.
The story so far
Following the coronavirus outbreak, there was a lot of talk in the UK media about panic buying of toilet paper, hand sanitiser and flu medicines, such as paracetamol, in the London area. This caused the panic to spread to most, if not all, parts of the UK very rapidly.
Other EU countries, and others outside the EU have seen similar panic buying of items which are considered to be essential.
In the UK, we have seen this happen in waves, and locally to me this has been:
hand sanitiser, flu medicines and toilet roll
tinned foods and dried foods, soap and cleaning products
frozen foods, and fridges and freezers to keep it in (one of my friend’s nephews had their fridge freezer break down irreparably, and couldn’t source a new one within 6 weeks so have had to buy a used one)
then fresh foods
there is even talk of people buying hens so they can have fresh eggs https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/21/coronavirus-chickens-sell-families-try-set-small-holdings-make/
As each “wave” occurs, people seem to become more concerned.
In order to prevent bulk-buying by the “worried well”, the downright selfish, and those who want to actively profiteer from the panic, UK supermarkets are:
setting buying limits on essential items
asking, and in some cases, preventing bulk buying (e.g. people taking in two empty trolleys and filling them entirely full of milk)
having set times reserved for key workers, the elderly and vulnerable people
closing to allow shelves to be restocked
having pallets of fast moving goods in the aisles, rather than placing them on shelves
If you have not seen someone bulk-buying during the crisis, it is difficult to describe the swirl of emotions it evokes. As we live in the countryside where we are likely to be cut off in winter, my husband and I (OK, just me) keep a good stock of essential items, tins, dried food etc all year round, so we are lucky in that respect.
However, we were down to our last half loaf of bread for my husband, as I’m on a low-carb diet in a bid to reduce my cholesterol. I wanted to buy 2 loaves for the freezer to see him through 3 to 4 weeks, in case we both have to go into lockdown, as he is (coughs) “69”, and has been for the last 2 years. (For our non-UK readers, anybody over 70 is being asked to self-isolate).
When I pulled into the Farmfoods car park (yes, I am Scottish, you didn’t think I shop at Waitrose, did you?) on Saturday morning around 8:15 am as normal, a chap was stuffing his hatchback boot full with bread. There must have been at least 20 loaves visible.
My first thought was that there would be none left; and my heart sank, as I had not bought bread at our local corner shop in case the elderly who can’t travel anywhere else needed it. My second thought was anger, “I bet he is stockpiling, the greedy so-and-so”, and I wondered why he’d been allowed to get away with it.
However, once I got inside, there were trays and trays of bread waiting there, although the freezers of veg and meat were nearly empty, and there were also toilet roll packs of 16, but limited to one per customer. It was very strange, as normally Farmfoods at this time on Saturday morning is empty of people and full of food in the freezers, but this was the reverse.
What was interesting, chatting to people, was how “down” they were, they were worried about supplies (particularly if they are required to stay at home for several weeks or months), concerned for their health, and overall giving an air of depression.
It reminded me of descriptions of people during the Great Depression, the unhappiness, the guardedness, the fact that it is an emotional state quite as much as a financial one.
When I said to the young lad on the till that they are doing a fantastic job, he replied “but we’re crying on the inside”.
What is really interesting is that, at the time of writing, my corner shop and garage shop are much better stocked than the supermarkets, with their usual ranges of products and full shelves. They may be slightly more expensive than the supermarkets, but the supply chain for food and consumer goods is actually working well.
The shortages are entirely caused by people buying more than normal, estimated to be £1 billion pounds in the last 3 weeks https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11224293/coronavirus-panic-buying/
As an old lady in our corner shop said, “what are people going to do with the fresh food when it goes off?” It may lead to a huge amount of food wastage.
What is very encouraging is how the food supply network has already leapt into action to respond to this massive demand, before any government interference or support. It’s not just the actions of the supermarkets, it’s also the farms and growers, the importers, the delivery drivers, the warehouse staff, all actions of individuals and private businesses working together to fill the gaps in supply.
UK Government response to the outbreak
The UK Government have responded in a number of ways:
asking the elderly (over 70) and vulnerable (pre-existing health conditions, pregnant) to self-isolate for up to 3 months, with letters from the NHS due today, Monday 23rd March for those who are deemed highest risk
supporting the supermarkets in a number of ways
asking device manufacturers to help make new ventilators, which at least one UK manufacturer has managed to prototype within a week: https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2020/03/20/medical-ventilator-could-be-manufactured-in-a-matter-of-days/
pumping £330 billion into the UK economy in the form of grants, loans, rates holidays, and wage support for business https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/covid-19-support-for-businesses; and mortgage holidays, sick pay and income support for individuals https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/support-for-those-affected-by-covid-19/support-for-those-affected-by-covid-19
closing schools, and having children work at home, except for the children of “key workers”, although I’m not sure whether we in the chemical industry, particularly in manufacturing, are considered “key workers” yet
closing pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars on Friday 20th March, which led to yet another wave of panic-buying in supermarkets on Friday afternoon, as people stocked up on alchol. Ironically, pubs can usually sell alcohol for consumption off the premises as well as on-premise, so they could still continue to do this, and pubs and restaurants in my area are switching to a take-away service, either pick up or delivered
With the bill which started going through Parliament on Thursday 19th March, (see https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-bill-summary-of-impacts/coronavirus-bill-summary-of-impacts) we are in truly unprecedented times, the type of government intervention into civilian life has only happened in the UK in wartime.
We have even had the first arrest of a UK citizen for failing to “self-isolate”, on the Isle of Man: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/20/first-uk-arrest-failing-comply-coronavirus-isolation-measures/
It is truly impossible to predict what government action will be imposed next, as it’s likely that UK COVID-19 cases will continue to increase if we are following the pattern which has occurred in Italy.
For example, this morning the UK Government has effectively nationalised the railways for a 6 month period.
We will need to be on our guard to make sure that this crisis does not lead to full-blown state control of many areas of life, once it has passed, as having lived through the 1970s, I can tell you that nationalisation is not the “cure-all” that some people seem to think.
Actual and potential effects on the UK chemical industry
Obviously companies which make vital supplies such as biocides used in hand sanitisers and hard surface cleaners, and pharmaceutical actives and their raw materials are experiencing an upsurge in demand.
However, this is also affecting people who make other chemicals not involved in the “coronavirus supply chain”, such as dyestuffs. Some companies appear to be stockpiling raw materials in case they are cut off from suppliers outside their country, but they may be trying to continue production. As one of my friends in this situation described it: “It’s a difficult one, because we could be inundated for two weeks and we might have nothing to produce for two weeks”.
So some of the demand may be natural, i.e. consumers, end users creating new demand by using more product, and some of the demand may simply be people trying to stock up on raw materials in case their supply chain is affected. The latter may be a mild form of panic buying, although industry as a whole does not tend to behave quite like individuals, as decisions costing money tend to be made by teams rather than individuals.
Other companies are experiencing normal or reduced demand, and “business as usual” may be reduced for companies outside the “coronavirus supply chain”.
If people are banned from leisure activities or non-essential shopping for any length of time, there may be a fall in demand for hair dye, cosmetics, non-essential clothing etc, and the chemicals which are used to produce these.
However, we are in a situation where we are definitely being hampered by EU chemical regulations on biocides, and by REACH, in ways which simply did not happen before these regulations were introduced.
We cannot really leap into action, as the food industry supply network has, and respond to increased demand effeciently, if we are effectively capped from manufacturing the raw ingredients for hand sanitiser through a lower tonnage band REACH registration. Nor can our customers make the raw ingredients into finished hand sanitiser if they have not got a biocidal product approval, which can take months and months to obtain.
This week, a request by a client of mine to import and sell a non-registered biocide on the UK marketplace has been turned down by the HSE, despite the fact that (a) it would take at least 6 months to make the BPR application, and a further 18 months or more to assess it and (b) it is a hand sanitiser active which was successfully used prior to BPR (and its predecessor, the Biocidal Products Directive), so it works, and hand sanitisers are desperately needed in hospitals, care homes, doctors’ surgeries, businesses etc as well as by the general public.
It’s all very well people saying that the regulators will take action in an emergency to counteract any problems with REACH and BPR, but it’s always going to be much slower than individual companies, who are at the sharp end and who understand what is going on early. It’s also not clear that governments are going to do the right thing. Companies have “skin in the game”, so they are more invested in getting the answer right.
What the chemical industry and chemical regulators doing to help
There is some movement from both industry and the regulators to try and improve things.
EU: ECHA and the European Commission have announced ongoing discussions about exceptional transitional measures around biocides. https://echa.europa.eu/-/echa-to-support-eu-wide-action-against-covid-19
UK: Several smaller gin distillers are making ethanol for hand sanitisers, and although their hearts are in the right place, some of the quantities mentioned are hardly at industrial levels (400 litres of hand sanitiser isn’t going to go very far), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-51927519 . I suspect that most of these gin distillers tend to buy in ethanol and redistil it with flavourings, rather than actually manufacturing ethanol.
For companies making larger quantities of ethanol from scratch, HMRC has put in place new arrangements for alcohol duty, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hmrc-prioritise-applications-to-use-denatured-alcohol-in-hand-sanitising-products. I understand that some of the large whisky distillers are considering switching to make ethanol for hand sanitisers, and are discussing this amongst themselves.
The UK Government has publicly asked for help from engineering companies to make more ventilators, to deal with the effects of the virus, but they have not asked publicly for help from chemical companies to make chemicals needed for dealing with coronavirus, that is active ingredients for pharmaceuticals, and active products for hand sanitisers and cleaning products, and these finished products.
Sweden: According to my contact Carlos Miguel Fazendeiro, Sweden has actually broken the European Union Regulations rules and approved transitional exceptional measures allowing the placement on the market of disinfectant biocides without complying with Article 95 meaning active substances can be manufactured by non listed companies and sourced from non approved suppliers. The need to obtain authorisation for some disinfectants has also been suspended temporarily.
I do not have a primary source for this information, but if it is true, it will be interesting to see how Sweden copes, and whether they are prosecuted by the EU after the virus has run its course.
Germany: The German authorities were very quick to respond, on 5th March they temporarily allowed hand disinfectants containing 2-propanol to be placed on their market: https://www.knoell.com/en/news/derogation-hand-disinfectants-germany
BASF has subsequently offered its Ludwigshafen plant to make hand sanitisers: https://www.icis.com/explore/resources/news/2020/03/17/10483189/basf-to-produce-hand-sanitizers-at-ludwigshafen-vci-launches-disinfectants-initiative
And, as I’m sure you’re well aware, all of the UK, EU and the world, people are working from home, which has seen a spike in demand for laptops, and activity on social media. This may ultimately lead to a change in how we work, with people who are not required to be in an office working from home more permanently.
What we are doing at TT Environmental in our very small way
We are very lucky, as a well-established home-based business, to have the tech tools and skills to help our clients remotely, and my admin and marketing lady, Sarah, is currently on maternity leave, so I don’t have to worry about whether she should come into work.
Our lovely Virtual Assistant, Megan Chapman, has been overwhelmed with new work in the last few days, so she can’t help as much as normal, but as things stand, I can manage.
However, it isn’t business as usual for any of us, and it isn’t likely to be for some time.
As well as trying to help individual chemical companies contribute to the fight against coronavirus, for example through bringing biocides to market or making more product, our normal consultancy work and online training continues.
Our weekly articles continue to you, our lovely readers, and we also support members of the Chemical Regulations Self Help Group with occasional newsletters as well.
Ironically, the enormous amount of fuss and uncertainty around coronavirus has prevented me finishing the final module of our online CLP training course, CLP Mastery. After helping my clients, my main job is to complete the write-up and re-open CLP Mastery to new entrants.
We normally run a timed launch, where there are three preliminary videos to generate interest, and you can only purchase during a 5-day window, but this seems somehow wrong in these circumstances.
If you’d like to view and use the videos for staff training, or as a refresher, you can find them here: https://www.ghsclassificationcourses.com/video-series-day-1/ . (We are having a glitch with the page for the third video, so if you can’t access it at the moment, it should be up and running later today once the tech people in the USA can help me sort it out).
I’ll keep these videos up throughout the crisis, as I know that a lot of people found them useful last year on our first launch. (There’s absolutely no obligation to purchase the course, although I’ll be here to support you and our existing learners if you do).
Even after 19 years in business, including the 2008 credit crunch, I don’t know how any of this is going to end, but I hope that my small team and I can continue to help you and the chemical industry for the forseeable future.
Wishing you, your family, and your colleagues good health,
GHS Classification Courses from TT Environmental Ltd
23rd March 2020
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