NHS staff 'feel like lambs to the slaughter' as they battle to save the lives of 1.5m vulnerable people
The health service was praised by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday, amid an outpouring of public gratitude for the country’s medics, and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said “heroic” workers have been “shouldering the country’s burden”.
But as those who the coronavirus will hit most acutely were told they must stay home for three months, in a bid to protect themselves and the health service as a whole, those battling the disease lined up to tell Mr Johnson they were not being provided with the equipment needed to protect themselves.
One Yorkshire doctor in his 40s has already been admitted to an intensive care unit after contracting the virus, and another medic elsewhere in the country was relying on an artificial lung.
And a Yorkshire frontline GP warned it was only a matter of time before the region was hit by a “tsunami” of cases.
The death toll from the virus in the UK rose to 281 yesterday.
Mark Watson, the President of the British Laryngological Association who works in Doncaster and Bassetlaw, warned ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists were among the most at risk as he said two consultants had been admitted to intensive care units this week.
It is understood one of the issues is that while the Government is supplying FFP3 masks, which provide a level of protection, many of them do not fit workers. The advice is to then wear ventilated hoods but those are in limited supply.
Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director of Healthcare Quality and Strategy, assured the country there was sufficient supply, but admitted distribution had been “challenging”. Mr Leitch said: “I know there is enough supply, the distribution has been challenging, because we’re adding in new places, we’re adding in care homes, we’re adding in community pharmacies.
“We’ve not had to do regular PPE transmission to those places before, so that is causing some individual challenges around the four UK countries.
“The third thing is we have to train, particularly the high-end people, the intensive care nurses and those we are training up to help us in intensive care, to know how to work these masks.”
Outside of hospitals GPs working in the community were also feeling the pressure. Dr Nick Summerton, a Yorkshire GP, public health physician and writer, said: “We’ve been left to cope the best we can.”
He said: “We’re very exposed, not just ourselves but our patients as well are coming into an environment which could be potentially dangerous.”
He said: “What we feel in general practice is like there’s a tsunami coming down towards us.”
And he said those outside of London, who had maybe not yet been hit as hard but were expecting similar pressures, had not been supported.
“It’s leaving us abandoned,” he said.
“You feel like you’re running along to keep up [with the crisis] but then NHS is [trailing] behind you.”
Meanwhile Dr Richard Vautrey, Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) General Practitioners Committee and a GP in Leeds, said areas such as Yorkshire were “gearing up” to face higher numbers of cases of coronavirus.
He said video and phone consultations would become the default unless there was a need for patients to attend practices, and ‘hubs’ could also be set up where patients with Covid-19 symptoms went to one location while those without went to another.
He said: “We have got PPE but many clinicians do not feel that’s sufficient to protect them as much as they would want it to.”
Dr Vautrey said while GPs had access to surgical masks, short gloves, and plastic aprons, World Health Organisation guidelines said they should wear a full gown and visor.
“We’ve also got large numbers of our staff who are self-isolating,” he said. “That then has an impact.”
He added: “Professionals want to be professional, they want to continue to support and engage with patients. It is worrying for clinicians and their family members as well, people talk about taking the infection home with them.
“There’s always this anxiety which is why they want to protect themselves.”
Mr Johnson yesterday pleaded with the country to adhere to social distancing measures, to give the health service the best shot.
He said: “The more we collectively slow the spread, the more time we give the NHS to prepare, the more lives we will save, the faster we will get through this.”
The public has responded to the challenge faced by the NHS with an outpouring of support for frontline workers.
Dr Vautrey said the majority of his patients were going out of their way to thank him for his efforts during the crisis, and a national applause for NHS workers was being organised online.
Food deliveries were organised to hospitals, and special opening hours at supermarkets set up for NHS staff.
Mr Johnson said: “I want to thank the amazing workers in the NHS, everybody working in social care, in every sector, in food distribution, transport, you name it – absolutely everyone who is keeping this country going today.”
But earlier in the day the Chair of the Doctors' Association yesterday said front-line NHS staff dealing with the coronavirus outbreak were still not getting the protective equipment they need.
Dr Rinesh Parmar said doctors and nurses feel they are being treated as "cannon fodder", and he appealed to Boris Johnson to ensure they are properly protected.
He told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show: "We have had doctors tell us they feel like lambs to the slaughter, that they feel like cannon fodder. GPs tell us that they feel absolutely abandoned.
"We are all pleading with Boris Johnson that they really look into arranging the vital personal protection equipment that all of us need on the NHS front line.
"What our doctors are telling us is that although equipment is arriving, some of it is inadequate, some of it doesn't meet the World Health Organisation guidance.
"That really doesn't fill front-line healthcare staff with the confidence that they need."
A group of almost 4,000 frontline workers have also written to the PM pleading for more help.
The group said many medical workers are "putting their lives on the line every day" by treating coronavirus patients without appropriate protection, and they called on Mr Johnson to ensure an adequate supply of masks, safety glasses, gloves, aprons and protective suits.
The group said staff had been issued with out of date masks, low stocks and ambulance workers arriving at shifts to find no hand sanitiser, masks or wipes.
It adds that paediatricians have warned their stocks of protective glasses would run out in 48 hours, including in special-care baby units.
The BMA has also written to Downing Street on the issue of personal protective equipment, and called for healthcare workers and their families to be prioritised when it comes to Covid-19 testing "to avoid unnecessary self-isolation".
The letter said: "Every day that goes by is resulting in increased shortages of frontline staff and we call on you to enable this to happen with immediate effect."