I have been on hold for a few minutes, waiting for our interview to resume, when Dexter Blackstock comes back on the line and starts apologising for leaving me hanging. Given the reason for the delay, however, this really isn’t a case of bad manners. “Sorry,” Blackstock says. “That was just 500,000 masks coming into the country. They’ve just landed. It’s come from China and will go straight out to councils.”
No wonder Blackstock, who has been building connections in the pharmaceutical world since retiring from football in 2017, is in demand. The 33-year-old former Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest striker is the founder and CEO of a medical technology firm, MediConnect, and all he can think about now is getting personal protective equipment to frontline staff dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. “This is from when I wake up to when I sleep,” Blackstock says. “The demand is through the roof.”
It hardly needs pointing out that this is not a straightforward project. NHS staff are saying they do not have enough access to PPE, while a crisis is brewing in care homes and hospices in the United Kingdom. Yet Blackstock is confident that MediConnect, a Blockchain solution, can help. His company is accepting donations from the public via a crowd-funding website, donatetonhs.com, and he has enlisted the support of Blackburn’s Bradley Johnson, who has given his time to the project and committed to delivering life-saving equipment to frontline staff near his home in Derby.
“What MediConnect is meant for is to provide transparency for all parties within the supply chain,” Blackstock explains. “It’s to add traceability of medications, to stop opioid addiction. I was building the platform for a couple of years. You have to build a relationship with everyone along the supply chain – pharmacies, manufacturers, distributors, logistics companies – to bring it all together.
“PPE is one of the biggest problems people are struggling with. I have the connections – instead of people just coming out the woodwork – which means you can actually get the product. I can help source this.”
The idea grew after a conversation about fund-raising initiatives between Blackstock and Johnson, who has nothing but good to say about his friend’s entrepreneurial spirit. The website has already raised more than £12,000. Each donation can be followed up by an email request, directing it be supplied to wherever people feel it is needed.
“When people donate they can see what we’re spending the money on and what supplies we’re getting,” Johnson says. “It’s a step-by-step transaction. They can donate and once we make the order we’ll put it on our website so people can see the amount of stuff we’re getting.”
The aim is to go further than hospitals. “We know now how much of a shortage the NHS is going through,” Johnson says. “We want to target the NHS but also the care homes or key workers – like bus drivers who are putting their lives at risk transporting NHS staff. If we get in contact with people in Derby I’ll go out and deliver. We want it to be known we’re doing something. We’re not just sitting at home, wanting people’s money and then letting others do the work. We’re going to do it ourselves.”
Blackstock was 31 when he hung up his boots. He was going through the motions at Rotherham but he had planned for the future. Now he is in a position to talk about the shortage of PPE. “It’s like toilet paper a few weeks ago,” he says. “The product can be made in the quantity required. But if everyone rushes at one time you can’t get it. If everyone in England decides to go and buy baked beans tomorrow, there won’t be enough. The rush has been too quick and the numbers are too much. The problem wasn’t the PPE, it’s just the time.
“And there are a lot of people who’ve come out of the woodwork in between who are blocking deals or buying up the stock at the same time, meaning the government can’t buy it. This is worldwide. A lot of it is coming from China. China physically can’t produce that amount.
“The NHS has an endless backlog. They’re kind of bullying the supplier to say: ‘We’re the biggest players, we’ll pay the most money, we need it.’ But what is happening is the councils, the care homes, the hospices and everyone below can’t get the product. So there’s not enough that can be made to distribute. England have not got access to every warehouse in China or product worldwide.”
It sounds like a tricky world to negotiate. “You’ve seen some people sending money to factories that are not even there,” Blackstock says. “It’s really bad. If I just woke up today and tried to source PPE I’d get robbed from the first batch. I wouldn’t know where to go, I wouldn’t know how shipment works. I’d be finished. It can only be done from previous relationships, which I have.”
Blackstock, who hopes to distribute £1m worth of equipment, speaks passionately on the issues in care homes. “Everyone has a feeling towards the NHS, but what I want to do more is get this money into the care homes, the hospices,” he says. “They are on their knees. It’s not like we’re running out – we have run out for those people.
“It’s the food chain. If the NHS has a shortage, where does anyone below come? If you’re on the frontline, you need equipment and the best of it. But if you’re just a care home you’re not going to be at the top and they’re really struggling. They’ve been contacting me, saying: ‘We need 100 masks, we need 500 masks, we’ve got nothing, we’ve been using the masks too long.’ They’re worried. There might be places that might not have positive-tested Covid-19 patients at the moment but could at any minute. It’s spreading fast across the care homes.”
It is an initiative that jabs against the depiction of footballers as greedy and shielded from reality. “I’ll never forget where I’ve come from,” Johnson says. “My mum and dad didn’t struggle, but we had a tough upbringing. I come from a working-class family so I know how hard it is for some of these families. I’ll always remember that. The negative press, it’s sad we don’t get credit for the good stuff we do. Everyone’s quick to jump on the negative. That’s life. Me and Dex want to help.”