Coronavirus: Lack of PPE ‘shocking indictment’ of government’s handling of crisis, doctors’ leaders say

Nurses reject Matt Hancock’s claim that overuse of ‘precious’ facemasks and gowns is fuelling shortage

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 11 April 2020 09:23 BST
Hancock gives death toll update and claims enough capacity to test NHS staff

Health secretary Matt Hancock is facing a growing backlash over his claim that NHS workers are using too much personal protective equipment (PPE), with one doctors’ leader saying that the failure to provide adequate supplies was a “shocking indictment” of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Hancock revealed that 19 NHS staff have died after contracting Covid-19, but said that authorities were “not aware of any link to shortages of PPE in any of these deaths”.

The Royal College of Nursing rejected the health secretary’s warning that shortages were being caused by overuse of items like facemasks and gowns, and that PPE should be treated as a “precious resource” by frontline workers. And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “insulting” to suggest NHS staff were wasting life-saving equipment.

Mr Hancock said in a Downing Street press conference on Friday that there was “enough PPE to go around”, but warned that it should be used in line with official guidance to ensure everyone got what they needed.

Announcing that PPE distribution would be stepped up to daily deliveries, the health secretary said: “Everyone should use the equipment they clinically need in line with the guidelines, no more and no less. There’s enough PPE to go around, but only if it’s used in line with our guidance. We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource that it is.”

RCN chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair rejected Mr Hancock’s claim, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is no PPE equipment that is more precious a resource than a healthcare worker’s life, a nurse’s life, a doctor’s life.

“Any suggestion that nurses are overusing personal protection is absolutely something we would like to dismiss.”

And Dr David Wrigley, a member of the British Medical Association’s council, said that more than 50 per cent of doctors responding to a survey said they did not have the supplies they need.

“We want to be there on the front line tackling this virus, helping our patients,” said Dr Wrigley. “But we are hearing from doctors – over 2,000 doctors responded to us and over half of them said they haven’t got the right facemarks to work in high risk environments. That is ITU [intensive treatment unit] environments. That’s a shocking indictment.”

Sir Keir said in a tweet: “It is quite frankly insulting to imply frontline staff are wasting PPE. There are horrific stories of NHS staff and care workers not having the equipment they need to keep them safe. The government must act to ensure supplies are delivered.”

Dame Donna warned that nurses were under threat from infection in services outside intensive care unit, such as community care, mental health and midwifery, where protective equipment was in shorter supply.

“We know actually the health care workers that are dying aren’t the ones that are working in intensive care, they are working in other services such as the community, such as mental health,” she said.

“We don’t know how they contracted Covid-19 but we do know their places of work and we know they are not the intensive care units, we know they are midwives, they are people who are mixing or who are delivering care in the community and in other services that we haven’t prioritised for the equipment.

“It’s easy to work in a place where the risk is identified and you have got the right equipment. What we do know is that Covid-19 patients are coming into contact with healthcare workers anywhere. It is being passed on in hospitals but we also know it is being passed on in communities.

“We can see that from our prime minister – he was not in a hospital [when he contracted Covid-19]. Protective equipment is needed in all of these places.”

Mr Hancock said it was “humbling” to see more than 1 million NHS and social care staff go to work every day during the pandemic despite the risks they face.

Health secretary Matt Hancock holding a Covid-19 press conference in 10 Downing Street (EPA)

Asked whether they should continue to work if they feel they have not been provided with adequate safety equipment, he told Today: “They shouldn’t be faced with that choice. The honest truth is that you have got to make the judgement in the circumstances of the time. My job is to make sure people don’t have to make that judgement.”

Mr Hancock stood by his plea for staff not to make excessive use of PPE, urging them to stick to guidelines drawn up in consultation with bodies including the BMA and RCN which meant gear could now be used for a whole shift, rather than being changed after every patient.

“It is really important that people don’t overuse PPE,” he said. “It is a precious resource.

“I don’t want to impute blame on people who have used more PPE than the guidelines suggest, because I understand the difficulties and circumstances, but it is important to use PPE as the guidelines say.”

The health secretary said that 761 million pieces of PPE have been distributed since the start of the outbreak and said those involved should be proud of their efforts.

But he added: “There’s clearly more to do to make sure that every single person who needs it gets what they need.”

And Dame Donna said she was still fielding frequent calls from nurses saying they did not have enough.

“In recent days we are improving the deliveries, but the safety of nurses and doctors and other health care workers must not be compromised,” she said. “Basic equipment to deliver care must be provided.

“We are all petrified about going out on the front line but we do it because that’s what we are trained for.

“But it’s beholden on those in offices of power to make sure they are looking after our physical welfare and psychological welfare. If a nurse does not feel safe she or he is not going to be able to provide good care.”

RCN boss Donna Kinnear on PPE shortages

Dr Jenny Vaughan, of the Doctors Association UK, said that more than 1,000 healthcare workers had signed up to its NHS PPE app in just 10 days to report the situation on the ground, with more than 40 per cent saying they had experienced shortages of long-sleeved gowns and eye protectors.

Dr Vaughan told Sky News: "We absolutely acknowledge that things have improved, but there are still many, many gaps and we can't afford gaps when it comes to people's lives."

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