Coronavirus: Priti Patel ‘sorry’ if people feel government has failed on PPE

Home secretary’s comment in first appearance at daily coronavirus briefing falls well short of proper apology, says Labour

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 11 April 2020 18:04 BST
Priti Patel says she's "sorry if people feel there have been failings" over PPE

Cabinet minister Priti Patel has said she is “sorry if people feel there have been failings” in the government’s supply of PPE protective equipment to hospitals.

The home secretary’s comments, at her first appearance at the daily 10 Downing Street coronavirus crisis press conference, stopped well short of an admission of shortcomings in the government’s response, and Labour immediately said it did not amount to the apology that was needed.

And the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Dame Donna Kinnair, said the comments would not quell nurses’ anger over health secretary Matt Hancock’s suggestion that shortages were caused by health workers overusing PPE rather than treating it as a “precious resource”.

“I don’t think any nurse is going to accept the apology because we don’t understand why anybody would be intimating that nurses are using a precious resource irresponsibly,” Dame Donna said. “What we will want to see is that we are getting the kit, we are getting PPE out there and we are able to use it in caring for the patients.”

Ms Patel’s comments came just hours after health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that 19 healthcare workers have died from coronavirus during the outbreak, and as senior doctors said the failure to deliver PPE was a “shocking indictment” of the government’s approach.

​Mr Hancock was facing a growing backlash over his claim that scarce equipment had been wasted, which was branded “frankly insulting” by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at a time when the UK’s overall death toll approached 10,000.

Official figures put the total number of coronavirus deaths in UK hospitals at 9,875 with the virus claiming a further 917 lives on Friday, slightly down on the previous day’s 980. Test numbers dipped to 18,091 over the 24-hour period, down from 19,116 the previous day, taking the government further away from its target of 100,000 by the end of the month.

Speaking alongside Ms Patel, NHS England medical director Stephen Powis said the figures showed a “levelling off” in the number of cases, largely due to strong public compliance with social distancing rules. Prof Powis said he was confident that the “plateauing” in demand for hospital beds would “translate in the next weeks into a reduction in daily deaths”, so long as guidelines on staying at home and avoiding public contact were followed.

Pressed to apologise to doctors and nurses who have repeatedly raised concerns about the shortage of gowns, gloves and facemasks for staff treating highly infectious Covid-19 patients, Ms Patel said it was “inevitable” that there would be an increase in demand.

She dodged two demands to commit the government to a fixed date when every NHS worker will have the personal protective equipment they need.

“Absolutely we are focused as a government across all departments to make sure everyone in the NHS has everything they need in terms of resources and equipment and PPE is at the heart of that,” she said.

And asked to apologise to healthcare staff, she said: “I’m sorry if people feel there have been failings, I will be very, very clear about that.

“But at the same time, we are in an unprecedented global health pandemic right now.

“It is inevitable that the demand and pressures on PPE, the demand for PPE, are going to be exponential, they are going to be incredibly high.

“We are trying to address that as a government, and I think that’s right, that’s our priority.

“We are doing everything in our power and our means to boost capacity and make sure we can get PPE out to the NHS.”

British medics have complained of low levels of PPE protective equipment
British medics have complained of low levels of PPE protective equipment (EPA)

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News: “It wasn’t really an apology, was it? It was one of those half-hearted apologies where you use the word ‘sorry’ to give the impression that you are apologising but you are not actually in reality apologising.

“We hear stories every day of healthcare workers on the front line forced to cut up curtains to make their own PPE. We’ve heard stories of nurses in bin-liners because they couldn’t get PPE, and those nurses have now come down with coronavirus.

“This really has been unacceptable, simply not good enough. People have been raising the alarm for weeks and weeks now and ministers have been making promises for weeks and weeks now, and yet our frontline staff still don’t have the adequate supplies of PPE they need. It’s time for ministers to get a grip, because it’s not fair to put our brilliant NHS workers and care workers in this situation.”​

Mr Hancock sparked healthcare workers’ anger by telling a Downing Street press conference on Friday that there was “enough PPE to go around” so long as it was 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.”

But Dame Donna 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.”

Dame Donna cautioned that the need for PPE was not confined to intensive care settings.

“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.”

In a message on Twitter, Sir Keir said: “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.”

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.

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 last week in consultation with bodies including the RCN and BMA which permit gowns to be used for a whole shift rather than changed between 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.”

The Doctors Association UK has created an NHS PPE app to allow healthcare workers to report the situation on the ground in real time.

The association’s policy head, Jenny Vaughan, said that more than 1,000 signed up in just 10 days, with more than 40 per cent saying they had experienced shortages of long-sleeved gowns and eye protectors.

She said: “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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