Up to NHS workers to decide whether PPE is adequate, public health expert says

Frontline staff will have to assess the risks they are putting themselves at amid shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), Public Health England’s medical director has said.

Organisations representing hospital trusts rounded on the Government today over its promise of more PPE to protect workers in the fight against Covid-19.

Chris Hopson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers, said there was “relatively low confidence” that a shipment of 400,000 surgical gowns which had been due to arrive in the UK from Turkey on Sunday would make its way into the country today.

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He said trusts are being forced into “hand-to-mouth” workarounds, including washing single-use gowns and restricting stocks to key areas.

The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across healthcare, has also reacted angrily to Government promises of more PPE, saying delays on the shipment from Turkey “makes a difficult situation worse”.

Its Chief Executive, Niall Dickson, said: “It would have been better had the Government not made the announcement in the first place” and said staff would need to make their own assessment over whether they felt safe with the PPE currently on offer.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, the medical director for Public Health England, speaking at today’s Downing Street briefing, also said NHS staff would have to decide whether they had appropriate protective equipment for treating Covid-19 patients.

Medical Director at Public Health England Professor Yvonne Doyle speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). Photo: PA

“Certainly people have to make their decisions based on whether they are in a risky situation or not,” she said.

“It is very difficult to legislate for all of that from a distance here. But the guidance is very clear on what is safe and not safe to do.”

She also insisted the advice to healthcare workers over PPE remained the same, after Public Health England (PHE) told clinicians over the weekend to consider reusing single-use masks, gowns and visors or to look for alternative equipment, when treating Covid-19 patients if stock runs dangerously low

She said: “The guidance remains exactly the same.

“What has happened over the weekend is to cover people really and given them some security in exceptional circumstances, advice has been produced jointly with the NHS about how to be safe in circumstances where supplies may be at risk.

“And that is a very precautionary set of advice – it’s quite the opposite to putting people at risk because there aren’t enough supplies.

“It’s trying to ensure that people are well secured and safe when there may not be enough supplies, and it also stresses how important it is not to take risks and when it is not right to do certain things and practices with the PPE.”

It comes after Martin Berkley, Chief Executive of Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, revealed he had ordered 6,000 coveralls to replace gowns which were not available.

He said staff had taken “every action possible to both conserve our stocks and to secure further deliveries”.

But he said: “One of those actions has been to purchase 6,000 two-piece coveralls, which are fluid repellent and therefore in line with Public Health England guidance.

“We fully recognise these coveralls are not ideal; they are more uncomfortable for staff and are more laborious to take on and off.

“However our first priority is to keep our staff safe, and these coveralls will do so in the absence of certainty about the next delivery of long-sleeved gowns.”

Prof Doyle said a lack of PPE “is a concern” but insisted officials are “working very hard” to improve the situation.

She said: “Yes it is a concern and obviously we want people who are working on the front line with patients at high risk to have what they need.

“Over this weekend I know, for instance, that 12m pieces have been delivered to 141 trusts and as has been said there is incredible work going on internationally in a very high burn rate situation.

“A difficult situation undoubtedly, working very hard to make it better and trying to make sure we can deliver to where it’s most needed.”

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the first of three expected RAF transport aircraft had finally left for Turkey today to collect a consignment of 400,000 gowns which had been expected at the weekend.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak also said that 140,000 gowns had arrived from Mynamar as ministers strained “everything” to get supplies.

Mr Sunak said: “We’re improving our sourcing internationally and domestically to make sure we can get the PPE we need in what is a very challenging international context.

“But people on the front line can rest assured that we’re doing absolutely everything we can and straining everything we can to get the equipment they need.”

Asked about exiting the lockdown, Mr Sunak said the UK needed to meet five tests set down last week, which include increasing testing in the community.

“We are not there yet and it is very clear that, for now, what we should focus on is following the guidance, staying home to protect the NHS,” he added.

“Anything else that people might be speculating on is wrong, we are crystal clear on that message.”

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