I’m a doctor, yesterday I took the government to court over PPE – this is what happened

NHS workers have shared horrifying stories with me during the pandemic – my colleagues and I vowed to hold the government to account for its failings

Dr Julia Patterson
Friday 23 April 2021 13:34
What is PPE?

We set up EveryDoctor in 2019, bringing together doctors who were frustrated about the state of the NHS, the underfunding, the understaffing, and the decimation of patient services, which has been going on for more than a decade in the name of austerity.

Working as a doctor in the NHS is a vocation and a privilege, but it’s also unbelievably stressful. Your job doesn’t finish at 6pm – you carry your worries about patients home with you. Arduous training over many years forces you to move around a lot as a young adult, you miss birthdays and weddings, it’s hard to put down roots, and you’re working anti-social hours, long hours which are exhausting and impact on your ability to separate work and home life. Despite this, most doctors love their jobs and feel a pull to the NHS which is hard to articulate. It’s a phenomenon, a true force for good, and we’re desperate for the NHS to survive.

In recent years, escalating privatisation and service cuts have stripped the NHS back to its bones. The service is failing in many areas because it isn’t being adequately invested in. There is a dissonance between the public’s support for the NHS, and the government’s actions. The government proclaim to “love the NHS” while cutting services, cutting staff salaries in real terms, cutting nurse bursaries. We didn’t feel that the traditional medical institutions were speaking up strongly enough about this. Winter crises were happening every year and became the norm (in 2017 the Red Cross had to intervene, calling the situation a “humanitarian crisis”). Enough was enough. So my team decided to build a movement for change. I couldn’t afford to remain in London full-time (I had a 1 year old and 2 year old, the childcare was too expensive), and so my young family lived between a cottage in rural Ireland and a tiny flat in London, shuttling back and forth as my team and I started to build our non-profit organisation up from nothing.

EveryDoctor grew slowly at first, operating through our private Facebook group of 25,000 doctors, slowly bringing doctors on board. But something changed last March. Doctors realised early on that the pandemic was going to be catastrophic. Many doctors had no PPE. Case numbers of Covid-19 were escalating and the government weren’t acting quickly enough. It spelt disaster.

We realised that our private group of doctors on Facebook was a key source of information that wasn’t getting to the public. We already ran an encrypted email account to bring anonymous testimonials from doctors to the media and we ramped up our efforts and brought stories to the press. We began briefing politicians who weren’t being informed about the realities on the frontline. We fought for, and won, eye protection for healthcare staff and death in service benefits, for staff who were dying of Covid-19 in large numbers and had no protections. We weren’t the only ones speaking up, everyone was doing what they could. I stopped working clinically in order to focus on supporting our members.

Those early months were horrifying. My background is as a psychiatry doctor, and we’d set up a doctor-to-doctor support service via texts and emails, providing pastoral support to doctors who were putting their lives on the line with inadequate PPE. The emails that came back were terrifying. Horrifying. Doctors looking after their friends in ICU, who died. Doctors living away from unwell relatives to keep patients and family safe. Doctors explaining that their nurse colleague who “didn’t like to make a fuss” had agreed to care for patients without taking up precious PPE, and died. My team did our best. Listening and lobbying, on-call pretty much 24 hours a day for the brave doctors we represented.

Then one day, an email arrived from Jolyon Maugham at Good Law Project. He wanted to take the government to court regarding PPE deals, which had been handed out to inappropriate recipients at the height of the first wave of Covid-19. Small companies with no experience in supplying PPE. A hedge fund based overseas. Friends and associates of government ministers. EveryDoctor, our community of doctors, resolved at that moment to hold the government to account. We cannot articulate how strongly we feel about attaining justice for our friends and colleagues who weren’t protected. Many of us who put patients first and sacrificed their lives in the process. These inappropriate PPE deals should never have occurred. The government was instructed years ago to prepare for the pandemic properly, and didn’t do it. We shouldn’t have had to scramble for PPE at that critical time.

As the legal cases developed (there are four in total), our lawyers discovered a “VIP lane”; proving that individuals who knew ministers personally were being prioritised for PPE contracts. In our legal proceedings, many of these VIP names are still hidden. Many of the senior individuals who made the decisions to award these inappropriate PPE contracts have not yet been named. We went to court yesterday to push for this evidence. If we are to hold the government to account, we must have all of the evidence. Our judge has ruled that we may request information on these influential individuals. We’ve won a battle here; we’ve scaled another roadblock on the road to justice.

EveryDoctor, along with Good Law Project will keep working, and pushing, and seeking to put answers into the public domain. Our four legal cases against the government go to court in May. We will fight for justice for every health and social care worker who died. We will fight for justice for every patient who hasn’t been protected. EveryDoctor will fight for justice to ensure that plans are put in place ahead of the next pandemic; to ensure that this is never allowed to happen again. But it’ll be a fight, and we need all of the support we can muster.

Dr Julia Grace Patterson is chief executive of EveryDoctor, a movement of 1700 UK doctors pushing for change.

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