Officials responsible for the UK’s “disgraceful” lack of adequate personal protective equipment need to be held “fully accountable for their abject failure” to protect frontline health staff, the hospital doctors’ union has said.
Hospitals and employers will now be able to use new official guidance on reusing items or wearing different kit to “coerce health workers … to risk their own lives when caring for Covid-19 patients”, said HCSA president Claudia Paoloni.
Amid fears hospitals could run out of supplies, Dr Paoloni said it was an indictment of the UK’s response to the pandemic that it was drawing on the emergency measures, which involve “an extremely high risk of cross-contamination for both staff and patients”.
More than 15,000 patients have now died in hospital after testing positive for the disease in the UK, with thousands more deaths expected in care homes.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Just as Lord Beaverbrook spearheaded the wartime efforts on aircraft production, the appointment of Lord Deighton will bring renewed drive and focus to coordinate this unprecedented peacetime challenge.
“Lord Deighton led the delivery of the Olympics. Now he will lead a singular and relentless focus on PPE as the country’s top manufacturing priority, with the full weight of the Government behind him.”
The Government has been under fire for weeks over the distribution of PPE, with some frontline staff warning that they have had to work in situations where they feel unsafe.
At least 50 NHS workers have now died after contracting coronavirus.
Some 84 tonnes of PPE is due to arrive in the UK from Turkey on Sunday, including 400,000 gowns, the supplies of which have been described as “critical” by NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts.
Dr Paoloni said in a statement: “It is an indictment of the UK’s response that it is now having to draw upon emergency World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines which will inevitably place healthcare workers and patients at greater risk from Covid-19 or other cross-infection.
“The WHO is clear that decisions to reuse or extend the use of PPE should only be a temporary last resort because it involves an extremely high risk of cross-contamination for both staff and patients.
“Our NHS workers are going above and beyond on a daily basis to heal.
“They should expect at the very least adequate protection to keep them fit and well to engage in this fight. Yet instead they are being asked to sacrifice themselves due to the failings of others.
“The Government must come clean on PPE and set out how it intends to get on top of this disgraceful situation with actions, not spin or misdirection.
“We expect those responsible to be held fully accountable for their abject failure to protect our heroic front-line staff.
“The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ has never felt more appropriate.”
If the gowns are unavailable, clinical staff have been advised by the Department of Health to wear “disposable, non-fluid repellent gowns or coveralls” or “washable surgical gowns”, with aprons, and to wash their forearms afterwards.
It also says staff should consider reusing PPE where necessary if supplies are low.
The Royal College of Surgeons has advised its members not to “risk their health” and said it was “deeply disturbed” at the guidelines, which it said were issued without expert consultation.
It echoed advice from the Royal College of Nursing, which said nurses should refuse to treat patients “as a last resort” if they are not provided with adequate equipment.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it had delivered almost one billion pieces of PPE around the country as of Thursday.
It added: “Companies such as Burberry, Rolls-Royce, McLaren, Ineos and Diageo have already started work to produce equipment including gowns, visors and hand hygiene products.
“The Government is working around the clock to give the social care sector and wider-NHS the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.”