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Coronavirus: NHS doctors ‘gagged’ over protective equipment shortages

Exclusive: Staff on frontline of pandemic warned not to speak out about concerns over lack of protective gear

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 31 March 2020 09:11 BST
Matt Hancock says 'millions of masks' will be delivered to NHS staff

Frontline doctors have told The Independent they have been gagged from speaking out about shortages of protective equipment as they treat coronavirus patients – with some claiming managers have threatened their careers.

Staff have been warned not to make any comments about shortages on social media, as well as avoiding talking to journalists, while NHS England has taken over the media operations for many NHS hospitals and staff.

The Independent has seen a series of emails and messages warning staff not to speak to the media during the coronavirus outbreak.

One GP has been barred from working in a community hospital in Ludlow after making comments about the lack of equipment, while another in London said they were told to remove protective equipment they had purchased themselves.

NHS England confirmed it was controlling media communications, which it said was part of its national emergency incident planning to ensure the public received “clear and consistent information”. A spokesperson said some NHS staff had already spoken out about equipment concerns.

Dr Rinesh Parmar, chairman of the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK) said it had received a number of concerns from doctors.

He added: “We are seeing draconian measures used to gag doctors and nurses on the frontline. The NHS will only benefit if we learn from each other’s experience. If we are unable to share our learning then patients will be put at risk.

“We must protect the frontline. NHS staff should not be gagged.”

On Sunday Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said the government had delivered 170 million masks, 42.8 million gloves, 13.7 million aprons, 182,000 gowns and 2.3 million pairs of googles to the NHS.

Despite this, clinicians over the weekend continued to report shortages with some telling The Independent they had completely run out of respirator masks and had relied on donations from local companies and schools.

One GP in the North West told The Independent they were warned off speaking to their local media about equipment shortages saying “it was strongly suggested” by their local clinical commissioning group that an interview would not be a good idea.

The experienced GP, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “I felt I was being warned I wasn’t toeing the party line. One of them said they had been told this nationally.

“We should be allowed to speak about these issues. We need more PPE [personal protective equipment] to keep us safe and we shouldn’t be putting our families at risk. The leaders are saying we should have this PPE, but the fact is we can’t get it and when we raise this we are told not to speak out about it. There is a problem there somewhere.

“If we raise something through the proper channels and it has not been dealt with, we have to speak out about it for our own safety. If we don’t and you make a mistake, or something goes wrong, we get blamed.”

The GP said their practice currently had no respirator masks and have tried to source their own from wholesalers, who had also run out. Although the practice had aprons and gloves, it did not have protective gowns.

One intensive care doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, raised concerns with their managers about a shortage of protective masks after being told they would have to use less safe surgical masks. They claimed they were later warned in a meeting with trust bosses that their social media profiles would be watched.

The doctor said they were told: “If we hear of these concerns going outside these four walls, your career and your position here will not be tenable going forward.”

The DAUK said they had received examples from across the country including the East of England, Yorkshire, Essex and Lincolnshire.

One doctor claimed they were told it would be “against hospital policy” to talk about shortages of PPE publicly. They said they were told social media was being monitored.

Another doctor said managers had warned them against what they said was “inappropriate social media comments regarding the state of PPE”.

The Independent has seen a number of messages to staff warning them against making comments on social media and not responding to requests for information from journalists.

At the weekend one GP was barred from working at Ludlow Community Hospital after she claimed it was “dangerously lacking” in equipment.

Dr Beanland, a GP partner at Portcullis surgery in Ludlow, was told to stop working after her comments and that her own protective clothing was “frightening patients”.

The Shropshire Community Trust said it had followed national guidelines of protective equipment.

In London another GP, Dr George Zumbadze, said he was working at an urgent care centre and was told to remove equipment he had purchased himself or stop working when he did a shift at the Chase Farm Hospital.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Once a major incident occurs it is vital that the public receive fast, authoritative, open, clear and consistent information from their NHS, which is why in line with longstanding [emergency] protocols, official communications are therefore always coordinated nationally.

“But staff continue to speak in a personal, trade union or professional body capacity, and it is self-evident from print and broadcast media coverage throughout this incident that staff are able and do in fact speak freely.”

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