Coronavirus: Health secretary Matt Hancock declines to apologise to nurses forced to choose whether to work without PPE

‘Impossible’ to commit to a date for all frontline staff to have the protective equipment they need, admits health secretary

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Sunday 12 April 2020 17:26 BST
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Matt Hancock declines to apologise to nurses forced to choose whether to work without PPE

The health secretary has declined to apologise to nurses forced to choose between treating coronavirus patients or protecting themselves due to shortages of vital protective kit.

Matt Hancock came under pressure to make an apology to frontline staff who are putting themselves at risk by working without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Nursing leaders have issued guidance to staff that they should refuse to treat coronavirus patients as a “last resort” if appropriate PPE was not provided.

Asked whether he would apologise to medics “who are being put in that impossible position”, Mr Hancock did not answer directly, instead saying: “We are working night and day to make sure that we get the right PPE.

“The thing I want to do is pay tribute to the unbelievable of a huge number of people to get to the position where we are in now, which is improving, but we won’t rest until we get there.”

Mr Hancock said it was “impossible” to commit to a date for all frontline staff to have the protective equipment they need, despite insisting “record” amounts of kit were in the system.

Asked if the government could commit to a date to deliver more PPE, Mr Hancock said: “It’s impossible because the quest is to get the right PPE to the right people on the front line at the right time across many millions of people across the NHS and social care.

“I’m glad to say that effort is moving in the right direction, we now have record amounts of PPE that’s been put out into the system but until everyone gets the PPE they need then we won’t rest.”

Mr Hancock said experts were currently trying to source more gowns with long sleeves which are needed to keep health staff safe from the virus.

Some 121,000 gowns have been delivered around the country, Mr Hancock said, adding that the average time to source PPE had fallen from six days to two and half days.

The health secretary denied accusations that the government had been too slow to stockpile PPE when the need for protective kit was clear from early on in the outbreak.

He said: “We went into this with the stockpiles, and the challenges are logistical ones of having previously had an organisation that serves just over 200 NHS organisations and the demand for PPE and the need for it has gone up enormously and there’s now 58,000 organisations that this huge logistical operation services.

“So it has been a challenge of logistics as much as one of supply.”

Earlier, Alok Sharma, the business secretary, admitted there was “clearly a need for more protective equipment” but failed to apologise for problems getting it to the front line.

He told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I’m incredibly sorry that people feel they are not able to get this equipment.”

On Saturday, home secretary Priti Patel provoked anger by expressing similar sentiment by saying she was “sorry if people feel there have been failings” in protecting health workers.

Meanwhile, a new survey found a third of surgeons and trainees across the UK do not believe they have an adequate supply of protective equipment to do their job safely.

The survey of nearly 2,000 surgeons and surgical trainees also found that 57 per cent said there had been shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) at their organisations in the last 30 days.

The research, carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), showed a wide regional variation, with more than half in the Thames Valley saying they now have access to adequate PPE compared to about a third in the northwest. In London 33 per cent of respondents said they did not believe their NHS trust had an adequate supply of protective equipment.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, said it would be “smart” of the government to acknowledge their ambitions for the supply of PPE have not been matched, adding: “And probably just to apologise for that and get on with it.”

He also called for underpaid staff in the health service to receive pay rises in the wake of the global pandemic. And he did not rule out a future Labour government raising taxes to deal with the economic impact of coronavirus.

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