Health care staff may refuse to work as NHS director makes plea for PPE

Health and Education

The NHS medical director has made a very public and impassioned plea for frontline workers to be given protective equipment, amid reports NHS staff are considering refusing to work without adequate PPE as stocks dwindle.

Prof Stephen Powis warned the government, during today’s (April 18) Downing Street coronavirus daily briefing, that sufficient PPE must be delivered to frontline staff battling against the pandemic, while union leaders labelled the lack of PPE as a “national scandal”.

“I’m a doctor, I’ve worked for many years on the frontline, and I can absolutely assure you that for me and my clinical colleagues this is very personal,” Prof Powis said.

“These are my friends, these are my colleagues, these are some of my extended family…I know government is working incredibly hard to get that procurement in… but what I hear from my clinical colleagues is that what they need, is PPE delivered to the frontline to follow the guidance that was approved two weeks ago.”

Surgeons ‘deeply disturbed by change to PPE guidance’

On Friday (April 17), the Guardian revealed new guidance from Public Health England (PHE) instructing healthcare workers to re-use disposable PPE, and medics instructed to wear aprons if they do not have gowns.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) said it is “deeply disturbed” by “this latest change to PPE guidance, which was issued without consulting expert medical bodies”.

A statement from RCS president elect Prof Neil Mortensen advised members not to risk their own health by wearing inadequate PPE with Mortensen warning the new guidelines from PHE “risks confusion and variation in practice across the country.”

He said: “The new guidance implies that, even in the operating theatre, surgeons and their teams may not require proper PPE. This is simply unacceptable.”

He said the “proposed alternatives to fluid repellent gowns or coveralls are wholly inadequate for an operating theatre environment.”

Lack of PPE is a national scandal

Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton responded to reports of PPE shortages, saying: “If gowns run out, staff in high-risk areas may well decide that it’s no longer safe for them to work.”

Gorton said “no part of the NHS” should use PPE fears “as an excuse to ration supplies of gowns when they still have stocks”, as this “would cause a damaging breakdown of trust at a time when staff are working under intense pressure.”

Unite has called the PPE issue a “national scandal” and the trade union has advised its 100,000 members that “NHS and social care staff could legitimately and lawfully decline to put themselves in further danger and risk of injury at work.”

Gail Cartmail, Unite’s general secretary, added: “The continued lack of PPE is a national scandal and the government’s litany of broken promises over the last month is shameful.”

Senior government minister Therese Coffey insisted earlier this week insisted that NHS and care-home staff were receiving sufficient supplies of PPE.

‘Safety of healthcare staff must not be compromised’

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) issued guidance last week and assured its members that they will be supported with legal representation and other measures, should they be criticised for refusing to treat patients because of a lack of PPE.

“For nursing staff, this will go against every instinct,” said a spokesperson for the RCN. “But their safety must not be compromised.”

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick led today’s Downing Street briefing and said 84 tonnes of PPE will be delivered this week, with a shipment – including 400,000 gowns – arriving from Turkey.

Counting the toll – deaths of NHS workers

The government has reported 27 “verified deaths” of NHS workers during the pandemic but the Guardian yesterday said it has “recorded 65 deaths that have been reported in the news, but the true figure is likely to be higher because not all deaths will be in the public domain.”

The number of deaths of people with Covid-19 has risen by 888 with the latest figures released by the Department of Health and Social Care showing the death toll has now passed 15,000.

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