An open letter from NHS staff is calling on the government to urgently address shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE). The letter has signatures from almost 4,000 frontline staff struggling at the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Making a desperate plea for the government to address the situation, the letter said:
NHS England has stated that the national supply of PPE has been “adequate” and any shortage is a local distribution issue. While this may be the case, it is not encouraging to see NHS England passing the buck.
We want to see action immediately. The supply of PPE in the coming weeks must be stepped up as we see a surge in cases. If it is not, the public will be endangered and dedicated NHS staff could lose their lives. It is time for the prime minister to demonstrate his commitment to the NHS and protect the lives of the life-savers.
The letter, which makes for difficult reading, also describes medical professionals feeling like “cannon fodder” in the absence of appropriate protection.
Even prior to the reported shortages of PPE supplies, there were discrepancies between guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Public Health England (PHE). WHO suggested that along with a mask, healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients should wear a gown, gloves and eye protection. But PHE guidance for NHS staff appeared not to match this. It only advised the use of a mask, apron and gloves. On 18 March, a doctor wrote for ITV:
We need full gowns not aprons, proper masks, and eye protection, proper protective equipment to international standards, not just what’s left.
The exact reasons for these discrepancies remain unclear. When The Canary contacted PHE for comment, Dr Nick Phin, deputy director at PHE’s National Infection Service, said:
The guidance is about ensuring that the right tools are available at the right time as the outbreak progresses and that the correct PPE is used for patient care to ensure the safety of healthcare workers. FFP3 masks are only needed for specific situations and we have updated the guidance to reflect this.
The “FFP3 masks” referred to here, are masks fitted with respirators. They provide greater protection than standard surgical masks. In the current crisis, this equipment is vital for healthcare workers.
“I am scared”
With the recent letter, it appears that concerns around PPE are now considerably worse. Shortages in supplies mean that some healthcare staff are having to go without any protection at all. The situation is dire, as the letter says:
Intensive care doctors and anaesthetists have told us they have been carrying out the highest-risk procedure, putting a patient on a ventilator, with masks that expired in 2015. Paediatricians have told us their stock of protective glasses and masks will run out in 48 hours, including in special-care baby units.
An acute medical doctor reported the stock of masks had already run out at one trust last weekend. GPs have told us they feel abandoned; many have been left without any protection for weeks and do not even have simple masks to protect them if a patient comes in with symptoms of Covid-19.
One doctor, writing for ITV on 18 March, had already warned of the risks of healthcare staff not using the right protective equipment:
Without effective protective equipment, I am scared of getting infected and infecting my patients.
If I am infected or carry the infection on my uniform, I could spread the disease to others in the hospital – the sickest and the most vulnerable of our patients.
Using appropriate protective gear and having enough supplies is crucial to control the spread of the virus and save frontline NHS worker’s lives. There’s only a finite number of trained medical professionals, and they’re key in the national effort against this pandemic. Risking their lives is cruel in itself – moreover, it spells impending doom for all of us. And let’s not forget the NHS was already in crisis thanks to a decade of funding cuts. Severe understaffing has been an issue since before the pandemic hit. The effects of austerity, combined with the government’s carelessness towards NHS staff, will only compound the damage coronavirus is going to cause.
The prime minister has been giving daily updates on the government’s handling of the pandemic. However, on 18 March he dismissed NHS staff’s concerns around PPE with a claim that “we have stockpiles of PPE equipment”.
During a global health emergency, it’s crucial to protect trained healthcare staff from the threat of the virus. Failing to do so will have grave consequences for the entire country.
Featured image via YouTube/ITV News