Nursing leaders are calling on the government to urgently review the use of standard surgical masks by healthcare staff. A review would raise the question of whether surgical masks offer enough protection against highly transmissible strains of coronavirus (Covid-19).
One nurse told the PA news agency that she feels staff are like “lambs to the slaughter” due to the inadequacy of surgical masks.
Urgent call for higher grade of PPE
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has written to the government after members raised fears they have inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Separately, it’s also joined forces with the British Medical Association (BMA) to write to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
RCN chief executive and general secretary Donna Kinnair said nurses were concerned that the standard face mask may not be effective in protecting against new strains of the virus and possible airborne spread in healthcare settings.
In a letter to Jo Churchill, minister for prevention, public health and primary care, Kinnair said staff were “aware that fluid repellent surgical face masks and face coverings, as currently advised in most general healthcare settings and patients’ homes, are not protective against smaller infective aerosols despite the Government video outlining risks of infective aerosols in the air”.
Government “must stop dragging its feet”
The College is calling for a review of infection control guidance, and for all NHS staff to be given the higher grade of PPE as a precaution pending the outcome of the review.
The Government’s silence on this issue is creating a postcode lottery for nursing staff whereby some working on wards have access to the higher-grade face masks and others do not.
It must stop dragging its feet on this issue. Nursing staff need to have full confidence that they are protected.
Staff picking up this virus at work are angered at any suggestion they have stopped following the rules – this is down to the new variant and the dangerous shortage of adequate protection.
Jane, which is not her real name, is a nurse from Yorkshire and member of grassroots campaign group Nurses United.
She said she contracted Covid-19 in April 2020 after helping a coronavirus patient inside an ambulance. Both she and the patient were wearing a surgical mask.
She has suffered from debilitating Long Covid symptoms since. And she’s had to take the last four weeks off due to chronic fatigue – nine months after her initial infection.
“I feel kind of like half the human that I was,” Jane added.
Jane said failing to protect all staff with suitable PPE made staff feel like “commodities”. She said:
In critical care areas they’re in full PPE but in the actual wards we’re still in surgical masks… the issue is that the surgical facemasks aren’t effective enough…
On top of the trauma, the PTSD and everything else that staff are feeling… people feel let down, scared and vulnerable – like we’re just commodities or lambs to the slaughter.
People start doubting who they’re working for and what they’re doing.
22% jump in healthcare staff off sick
In a further letter to HSE chief executive Sarah Albon, also signed by BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul, Kinnair said:
In the absence of clarity on the reasons behind the new variants’ increased infectivity, we are calling for the HSE to take a precautionary approach and to use your role as a regulator to ensure employers and those developing national guidance meet and understand their responsibilities.
Adequate supplies of PPE that meet the required specifications are vital to support nursing staff to do their jobs safely.
Without support to use suitable PPE, nursing staff are putting their own lives, and the lives of their colleagues, families and patients, at risk.
In the letter, the RCN cites NHS data showing a 22% rise in the average number of healthcare staff off due to coronavirus in the first week of January compared with the previous week.
From 31 December to 6 January, an average of 41,641 employees were off each day. This was up from 34,210 for the period 24 to 30 December.