As research published this week shows just how reliant the NHS has become on Chinese-made products, Rob Clark writes that we must do all we can to break this reliance, including ensuring a competitive British manufacturing industry.

This week startling new figures released by the Civitas think-tank indicate that Britain's reliance on China for basic NHS supplies risks our health service at the mercy of the communist regime in Beijing. In just one example, last year the government imported almost 80 per cent of the NHS' bandages from China, giving over £15 million to the authoritarian regime. In another example, Britain paid over £38 million for protective garments – a 79 per cent reliance on China – and over £13 million for surgical gloves – representing a 54 per cent reliance.

In fact in total, Britain is now dependent on the Chinese government for one in six critical NHS supplies contained on the UK government's 'Disaster Relief List'. This figure is almost three times what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This reliance on China for critical areas within the NHS supply chain now costs the UK tax payer £6.2 billion a year. During the scramble for PPE as the pandemic loomed in early 2020 it was at least understandable why the government chose to rely on cheaply manufactured and readily available Chinese products. But surely not two years later, as we adjust to the post-COVID age of trade. There is a growing awareness of China's aggressive economic mercantilism, and this has sharpened the international community's collective understanding of the economic and security threats posed when trading on China's protectionist terms.

This then brings us now to the fundamental requirement for a further step change in Chinese economic relations. Thankfully, the naïve so-called 'Golden Era' of British-Sino relations of the previous decade are long behind us. The termination of the Huawei telecommunications and 5G deal in 2020 clearly highlighting the dangers of closer economic and security collaboration with the communist regime.

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The world is beginning to see China's ulterior economic motives. They are seeking to pioneer dual-use military technology; they are instigating widespread and systemic intellectual property theft; and they are bringing about the capitulation of developing nations' critical national infrastructure projects in return for hyper-aggressive loan packages. As nations, particularly in Africa, continue to grapple with the long-term financial and health-related costs from the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK cannot be in a position where our health service is left reliant for critical components on this same autocracy. It is simply not in the British interest to continue doing so.

So what is to be done? Well one of the positive impacts that this new research has highlighted is the need now to invest back into British. The government must begin to incentivise an increased yet still competitive domestic manufacturing base for basic medical supplies, including, surgical gloves, aprons, and bandages. By helping small and medium-sized British businesses to compete for lucrative NHS supply chain bids, this will only further strengthen the British export market down the line.

The second priority for the government to undertake in light of this shocking new research is to reinitiate and indeed double down on Project Defend: the government-led review into British supply chain resiliency. Lord Alton of Liverpool recently raised a question with the government's representative in the House of Lords for International Trade, seeking clarification on where the government was with its review. This was in light of the heavy reliance on the Chinese government for many core components of Britain's critical supply chains – the NHS products listed in Civitas' research being one key area.

So far the Government have yet to provide an update on Project Defend. It has been exactly two years to the month since it was first launched. The Government must now provide some details as to this enquiry's findings, and how it plans on reversing some of overreliance on states like China and 'onshore' back to domestic production.

Ultimately, this dependence on China is not in the national interest. Understandable (though not condonable) to a very slight degree during the height of the pandemic, we are now learning to live with COVID-19, in an era which will increasingly be shaped by a keen awareness of Chinese economic practices and insecurity. The Government even correctly identified China as being the largest threat to Britain's economic security during last year's Integrated Review.

We should therefore start as we must go on. We must uncouple from repressive regimes which seek ulterior geostrategic motives, and who use global trade often as a weapon as much as for shared financial reward. The time to decrease reliance on China for our NHS' critical supply chains, whilst investing back into British manufacturing, is now.

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