The British government has admitted a shortage of crucial masks and gowns for healthcare staff as it faces mounting criticism from doctors and medical workers amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Medical workers treating patients who have the highly contagious COVID-19 disease have criticised a government suggestion to re-use personal protective equipment, or PPE.
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A Department of Health spokesman said the guidance was to ensure that staff knew what to do to minimise risk if shortages did occur, and that the rules remained in line with international standards.
“We’ve got to do more to get the PPE that people need to the front line,” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said when asked about the situation during the government’s daily news conference on Saturday.
He acknowledged the shortages but added that a consignment was due to arrive from Turkey on Sunday containing equipment including 400,000 protective gowns.
“We are trying to do everything we can to get the equipment we need,” he said during the televised briefing.
“We are trying to source more internationally, that is difficult at times, there is a great deal of demand for it, and the security of that supply can prove very challenging, but we are making progress there.”
Britain is nearing the peak of a health crisis in which more than 15,000 people have died – the fifth-highest national coronavirus death toll, a pandemic that has killed at least 150,000 worldwide.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from Ashford on the outskirts of the capital London, said the controversy around the stock of PPE has been growing in recent weeks.
“The pressure that’s coming, it’s because of anecdotal evidence from the front-line staff, who are treating COVID-19 patient, having to do so compromising their own safety,” he said.
At least 27 NHS staff have died during the pandemic, according to the government figures. Media reports, however, say the toll could be much higher.
Data published on Saturday showed 15,464 people have died in British hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus – an increase of 888 in the 24 hours to 16:00 GMT on Friday.
That increase is higher than recent days, but below the highest daily death toll of 980, seen just over a week ago.
The government issued new guidance to hospitals on Friday setting out that alternatives to fluid-repellent full-length gowns may need to be used, including reusable gowns or even long-sleeved laboratory coats.
“This guidance is a further admission of the dire situation that some doctors and healthcare workers continue to find themselves in because of government failings,” said Rob Harwood, chairman of the consultants’ committee at the British Medical Association.
“If it’s being proposed that staff reuse equipment, this must be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence – rather than availability.”
The trade union Unite said it had told its members they could lawfully refuse to work to avoid risk of injury, describing the situation over PPE as a “national scandal”.
The Royal College of Nursing said it had written “in the strongest terms” to express its concerns over the rules change.
NHS Providers, a body that represents hospitals and other parts of Britain’s publicly funded National Health Service, said supply levels of gowns were critical.
“It is now clear that some trusts will run out of fully fluid repellent gowns this weekend,” deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said.
Britain’s response to the coronavirus outbreak – which has lagged behind that of European peers – is a source of increasing political criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering from a spell in intensive care after being infected.
“This is not just a healthcare issue any more, it is a real political hot potato for the government, and they are getting a lot of criticism as a result of what is perceived as a lack of forward planning,” said Brennan.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock appointed Paul Deighton, who was chief executive of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, to organise the domestic manufacture of PPE for health workers treating coronavirus patients.
“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,” Hancock said.