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Coronavirus: Government rejected advice on NHS protective equipment three years before epidemic

Labour says 2017 decision – made when Jeremy Hunt was health secretary – leaves ‘serious questions’ for ministers to answer

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 28 March 2020 11:12 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

A recommendation for all frontline NHS staff to be given protective equipment during a flu epidemic was rejected as too costly, an explosive memo reveals.

Labour said the decision – made in 2017, when Jeremy Hunt was the health secretary – left “serious questions” for ministers to answer about whether underfunding was now costing lives.

In recent weeks, doctors and nurses have protested against a shortage of equipment which has left them at risk of contracting – and spreading – coronavirus on hospital wards.

Now the document shows advisers called for “eye protection for all hospital, community, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients”.

Either visors or safety glasses should be provided, because of evidence of becoming infected via the eyes when in close contact with pandemic influenza patients, they said.

The recommendation came from Nervtag, a body set up in 2015 to prepare for the new and emerging threat from respiratory viruses.

However, according to minutes of a meeting in June 2017, seen by The Guardian, a health official rejected it because of “the very large incremental cost of adding in eye protection”.

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “There are serious questions for the government to answer about why warnings on providing equipment were ignored and dismissed because of underfunding.

“The country came together in admiration and thanks for our NHS staff. They must now be given the protection they deserve.”

A minute from the 2017 meeting shows that what is now the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) feared a “four- to six-fold” rise in the cost of protective equipment, arguing there was “a very low likelihood of cost-benefit”, The Guardian reported.

Nervtag then changed its official advice to buy only enough eye protection for “exceptional usage” in higher-risk circumstances.

A spokesperson for Mr Hunt, now the Commons Health Committee chair, said: “Jeremy does not believe he was personally involved in decisions about PPE [personal protective equipment] for NHS staff.”

The DHSC defended the decision, saying it was right to take into account “cost effectiveness” and “practical considerations, such as shelf life and storage”, as well as expert clinical advice.

“The government has prepared and stockpiled for an influenza pandemic,” a spokesperson argued.

“The documents clearly state that the scientific evidence did not support a vast increase in procurement expenditure on face masks with integrated eye protection for pandemic influenza.”

The DHSC has said that more than 15 million face masks have been delivered to the frontline, as well as 24.6 million gloves and 1.9 million sets of eye protection.

But the British Medical Association on Saturday said: “GPs around the UK are still at risk because of inadequate protective equipment.”

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