Frontline NHS staff at risk from airborne coronavirus, Boris Johnson warned

Prime minister told he must act to ‘prevent the further loss of lives’ as a result of inadequate PPE

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Friday 19 February 2021 08:24
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Coronavirus in numbers

Frontline NHS staff are being put at risk because they’re forced to work with inadequate protection against coronavirus, leading health organisations have warned.

A coalition of more than 20 health and science bodies have written to the prime minister urging him to intervene and order a review of UK rules on infection prevention so that workers are provided with higher-grade masks.

They say new research shows the virus should be considered an airborne pathogen and current rules are incorrectly based on the idea the virus spreads via droplets alone.

The organisations, including the Royal College of Nursing, British Medical Association, Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Royal College of Midwives, told Mr Johnson: “The evidence is clear and lives continue to be put at risk.”

On most general hospital wards nurses and doctors are expected to wear only basic surgical masks, although The Independent revealed earlier this month some hospitals were already defying the rules and handing out higher-grade masks.

NHS data suggests more than 35,000 patients were likely to have been infected with coronavirus while already in hospital between August and January this year.

Despite shortages of PPE reported at the start of the pandemic last year, the UK has built up at least a four-month stockpile. But earlier this week data from the British Medical Association showed one in five female staff were worried about catching coronavirus due to ill-fitting protective equipment. Some staff have also complained they have not been properly fitted for masks.

Across the UK, at least 930 health and care workers are believed to have lost their lives as a result of Covid-19, with many more suffering longer-term effects from the infection.

The group said Mr Johnson had to step in because Public Health England and the NHS were not doing enough.

The letter urged Mr Johnson to help “prevent the further loss of lives” adding: “Health and care workers are at three to four times greater risk of developing and dying from Covid-19 than the general public.

“However, measures to reduce airborne spread in high-risk health and care settings, which are mission-critical to the pandemic response, have thus far been inadequate.

“There is now no scientific doubt that Covid-19 spreads via the airborne route.”

It added the existing guidance “does not accurately depict the airborne risks when sharing health and care settings including working in patients’ homes and public buildings.

“We believe that given the rapid emergence and evolution of new variants of concern, a change in approach must be implemented at speed to protect patients and staff consistently across the UK.”

They have asked for official guidance to be changed and staff looking after patients with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 to be provided with better masks.

The letter says there must be improved ventilation in health and care settings and new recommendations to tackle the airborne risks from the virus.

It also calls for better collection of data on infections among healthcare staff to learn which settings are more at risk. Finally the letter asks for all scientific evidence on airborne transmission in health settings to be published and new research to answer key questions.

“We have addressed this letter to you because your agencies and departments have not yet sufficiently responded to our concerns. While we are aware that a review of the guidance has been carried out, we cannot agree with its apparent conclusions that the guidance should remain the same,” the letter concluded.

A study from the University of Bristol and the North Bristol Lung Centre found NHS workers surrounded by coughing patients were at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

The risks had previously been limited to what are called aerosol-generating procedures, which can include tubes being put down patients throats to help them breathe.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Our members are telling us their concerns are not being listened to and they feel unprotected by current government guidelines that seems to take a ‘one-size-fits-all, no evidence’ approach.

“Some nurses providing end-of-life care are working overnight in a patient’s home, with no ventilation, in close proximity to family members where the risk of coronavirus may be high given rates of infection in the community currently.

“The equipment they are provided with needs to match the risk they are facing and be available if required alongside fit testing and training on their use.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care: “At every stage of the pandemic, the safety of our NHS and social care staff has been our priority – and we continue to work tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect those on the frontline.

“We also know good ventilation can greatly reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19, which is why it is listed in guidance to help businesses and health and care settings stay Covid-secure.

“The government will continue to closely monitor new and emerging evidence on airborne transmission, and update our advice where necessary.”

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