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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland firms sign up to help 'war effort' as bosses display admirable community spirit

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Brian Davison of Portview Fit-Out with a member of staff from the NI Hospice. Portview donated masks to the hospice to help it deal with a shortage

Brian Davison of Portview Fit-Out with a member of staff from the NI Hospice. Portview donated masks to the hospice to help it deal with a shortage

Member of staff at O'Neills in Strabane works on scrubs after the business has diversified from GAA jerseys

Member of staff at O'Neills in Strabane works on scrubs after the business has diversified from GAA jerseys

�Lorcan Doherty

Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace

Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace

Brian Davison of Portview Fit-Out with a member of staff from the NI Hospice. Portview donated masks to the hospice to help it deal with a shortage

Companies around Northern Ireland are joining what they are calling the "war effort" to help make much-needed equipment to protect NHS staff treating patients with Covid-19.

From multinational giants like Collins Aerospace in Kilkeel to small family firms, up to 40 businesses are now involved in producing items including scrubs and visors.

Around 150 O'Neills staff at the company's premises in Strabane have turned their hand from making GAA jerseys to stitching scrubs for nurses and doctors on the front line.

Following the creation of a prototype last week, BlocBlinds in Magherafelt has now repurposed its production line and will be able to produce 22,000 FaceShield visors per day.

And Portview Fit-Out in Belfast has made a donation of FFP3 face masks to the NI Hospice. The masks are used on construction sites but are also used by medics, and are in short supply due to the need for masks when treating Covid-19. Portview has donated 1,800 masks and £43,000 to the hospice.

It's good to be doing something positive. It's very, very depressing with all the news out there Paul Crossen, Crossen Engineering

Crossen Engineering in Belfast has a small number of staff working on what they have started calling 'halos' - the ring over which plastic is placed to make a visor, guarding NHS staff against droplets carrying the virus.

Crossen Engineering is part of a massive operation to manufacture visors, led by baby products manufacturer Shnuggle in Newtownards.

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Member of staff at O'Neills in Strabane works on scrubs after the business has diversified from GAA jerseys

Member of staff at O'Neills in Strabane works on scrubs after the business has diversified from GAA jerseys

�Lorcan Doherty

Member of staff at O'Neills in Strabane works on scrubs after the business has diversified from GAA jerseys

Crossen managing director Paul Crossen said he had felt compelled to get involved to create something positive out of a very sad time.

Its plastic moulding machine will be working around the clock and will need to be replenished by staff every two hours, even overnight. And this week the daughter of a member of staff who works in A&E at the Ulster Hospital trialled one of the first visors to come off the production line. "For us, it's personal," Mr Crossen said.

"It's good to be doing something positive. It's very, very depressing with all the news out there. If you go on Facebook it's all doom and gloom, so it's good to do something constructive.

"We've been working around the clock. It would normally take us six to eight weeks to deliver that tool, and we did it over six days."

Crossen Engineering also makes parts for Armstrong Medical in Coleraine, a medical devices company also working to fight coronavirus.

Mr Crossen said it was a worrying time for business, though Crossen was in a good place financially. He added: "We've been in business 42 years. There have been recessions and tough times but this is another level. It's comparable to a war but without fighting."

Its machinery is now optimised to produce 5,000 halos a day, with the machines running overnight.

Collins Aerospace is using machinery to cut through fabric for scrubs, and a small team of engineers led by associate director Richard McBride also created a prototype face shield, 135 of which were delivered to Craigavon Hospital on Wednesday night, while more will go to the NI Children's Hospice.

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Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace

Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace

Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace

Stuart McKee, managing director of Collins Aerospace, said: "A number of employees, extremely mindful of their family and the wider community, are going that extra mile to ensure that they play a small part in helping those in need including the NHS, NI Children's Hospice and the wider Kilkeel community. Collins Aerospace Kilkeel will continue to do what we can, where we can."

A super seamstress is, meanwhile, pulling in hundreds of top stitchers from across Northern Ireland to work on the scrubs, as part of the same drive. Co Down's Angeline Murphy, who appeared on the BBC's Great British Sewing Bee, is working alongside a host of other stitchers, suppliers and producers.

She has raised £10,000, including receiving a £5,000 donation from her employer, gas supplier firmus, and brought together a team of more than 4,000 people online to produce, deliver and request scrubs.

"We had the ability to buy fabric, removing barriers for people," she said. "I liaised with contacts here locally, buying in rolls, cutting, packaging and attaching cord. It's now going to every county in Northern Ireland and we have had lots of volunteers from people offering to drive rolls of fabric to households."

Adam Murphy, co-owner of Shnuggle, which also came up with a design for a visor, as well as coordinating a project to get the visors out to those who need them, said it felt like a war effort.

"We have our own business making baby products but everything was quietening down, so we had a good research and development team with nothing urgent to do," he said.

"We saw messages on doctors and nurses doing without protective equipment so we decided to look into it."

It has developed a face shield and is also working with Crossen Engineering.

Mr Murphy said the shields are being made as cheaply and effectively as possible.

A website has been set up for NHS workers to order them free of charge. Today it will ship out 25,000 face masks, which have been funded through a Justgiving page that has now raised £18,000.

He added: "We've set up a not for profit limited company called Hero Shield Ltd. We'll wrap it up in six weeks I hope, but if there is further demand we'll keep making them."

Kieran Harding, managing director of Business in the Community Northern Ireland, said the need to link business support to community has never been more urgent.

"We're encouraged that businesses such as Armstrong Medical, Portview Fit Out, Bloc Blinds and Queen's University - to name a few - are already stepping up to help those affected by the pandemic, by producing and offering products, providing skills support, and making donations to ensure vital services provided by the NHS, local charities and community organisations can continue, but there is still much to be done."

Belfast Telegraph