Medical face masks, the chaos of COVID-19, & the scramble for the Golden Fleece

A few months ago, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of medical face masks took an alarming toll. We heard from health staff that they didn’t have the protection they needed. The frightening experience by mid-March of the mystery of where was the PPE, or the right PPE for the NHS, including face masks, left the impression that “just in time” production was not coming close to serving public health needs.  On an almost daily basis for weeks we were told: ‘It is stockpiled. Distribution is difficult.’ Was there an ingredient that was hard to come by? Where was the stockpile?

In May 2020 in a blog entitled  The story of the Golden Fleece: A study in political economy, Nick Pearce retold the story of  ‘melt-blown’, an extruded synthetic fibre, which was nicknamed the ‘golden fleece’ because of the valuable protection it offers front-line medical staff and its high demand the world over.

This very versatile polymer started life during America’s Cold War, pioneered in military research for monitoring nuclear tests, before moving on to oil giant Exxon for use in industrial processes. Soviet scientists used melt-blown to connect elements for marshland drainage; meanwhile the machines used to make melt-blown fabrics were produced in corporate plants by leading edge manufacturers. Family-owned German companies came into the story and currently manufacture most of the world’s machines for producing medical and hygienic non-woven fabrics. As COVID-19 hit, European producers of melt-blown, such as Innovatec in Germany, could barely believe the amounts which Asian buyers were prepared to pay – with scope for fraudsters and criminal cartels to become involved in the desperate rush to obtain supplies. Melt-blown production reached China after sparking a frenzy of Yangzhong manufacturing companies, with the majority initially producing sub-standard products and being shut down by the Chinese authorities. There are now state-sanctioned enterprises in China that have built vast production lines for face mask manufacturing, aiming to become the world’s biggest producer. “Nothing matches the velocity and sheer scale of Chinese manufacturing” according to Nick Pearce, “ [and]…nothing traverses the global economy quite like the story of the golden fleece.”

Nick Pearce is the Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy, based at Bath University. He has extensive experience in policy research and government policymaking and is an author and regular commentator on public policy. He was formerly Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), leading a team producing public policy research in the key areas of public services, economic reform, the welfare state, migration, energy and environment and politics and power. He was Head of the No10 Downing Street Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010, and has worked as special advisor in the Home Office, Cabinet Office and former Department for Education and Employment.