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Health worker in PPE, India, March 2020. Photo: wikimedia commons

Health worker in PPE, India, March 2020. Photo: wikimedia commons

Government failings are putting life-saving NHS staff at risk, and the latest PPE scandal is guaranteed to make matters far worse, argues Alia Butt

 "I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and have PPE fall from the sky in large quantities", says Health Secretary Hancock, in light of warnings that some trusts will completely run out of gowns in the coming days. Frontline medical staff, working around the clock to save lives, are being forced to wear reusable lab coats, long-sleeved patient gowns, or plastic aprons instead of more appropriate single-use gowns. To justify this life threatening development, Public Health England has actually rewritten its guidelines which stipulated the need for waterproof gowns that prevent coronavirus droplets from getting into people’s mouths and noses and were required to be worn for all high risk procedures. 

Now staff are being asked to reuse PPE that has been designated by manufacturers to be used only once. The claim is that the World Health Organisation sanctions this move in its guidelines in ‘exceptional circumstances’. These exceptional circumstances would not have occurred had it not been for the government’s catastrophic catalogue of failings. The fact that kit due to arrive from Turkey on Sunday has been further delayed is just the latest in a long line of blunders and broken promises. 

Shortages of appropriate PPE are seen as unacceptable by unions and professional bodies, including Unite, Unison, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nurses. They have suggested nurses refuse to work should they not be given safe PPE. Over 50 medical professionals have died from the corona virus so far, the majority of whom have been from minority backgrounds. 

In the light of such extreme shortages, such action may well be necessary to save health workers’ lives and to put pressure on the government to take the situation more seriously. A 24 hour helpline is provided for staff to report critical shortages, but this will obviously not assuage the need for actual equipment – neither will Hancock’s wish to magic PPE out of thin air. Actual, strategic governing however, might just help pull the rabbit out of the hat. 

It has been clear since early February that urgent steps were needed to avoid the unnecessary deaths. Instead, there has been complacency extending as far as putting essential training to prepare key workers for a pandemic on hold for two years, while the focus was on planning for a no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s failure to attend 5 Cobra meetings in the run up to the crisis, his failure to take crucial steps outlined by scientists or to heed warnings by public health experts, has literally cost lives. Staff are having to make decisions they would never have had to consider prior to the crisis, including prioritising certain lives over others. This will no doubt result in a deeper set of mental health wounds that will need healing post the Covid era, further inundating overstretched and undermined NHS mental health teams around the country. 

Hancock’s suggestion that the UK shortage is due to global demand, his attempt to blame healthcare staff for not using PPE properly, and the refusal to acknowledge poor planning and lack of preparedness, is unfortunately unsurprising. It is in line with the government’s customary shirking of responsibility and denial of reality.

There has been another litany of incompetent actions regarding ventilators. The government failed to procure extra machines when other EU members did, and only managed to put in orders in mid-March. The order specification as to whether long or short term ventilators were needed has been constantly revised, making the process unnecessarily drawn out. One email related to ventilator procurement is said to include a video tutorial relating to a ventilator that has been obsolete for years. 

All this points to the sheer incompetence of advisors and the government’s inability to take the situation seriously. More than this it shows they have little skill in governing the country at all. The government’s obsession with the free market has left it completely incapable of responding to a crisis. It has also led to its preoccupation with privatisation, the commercialising and outsourcing of services, draining essential funds away from the NHS and solidifying ties between the government and big business. 

Discussions around exit strategies and the ending of lockdown further highlight how the government's regrettable priorities will put further lives at risk. The focus needs to be on PPE, testing and keeping the population safe. The need to test is now been given less precedence due to the crisis surrounding PPE. Testing is essential to allow the tracing of those who will have come into contact with the virus, to encourage isolation, to prevent further transmission and to allow life-saving treatments where possible. It is also essential in our ability to truly understand the nature of the virus, its prevalence, and to allow adequate preparation of essential services.


Alia Butt will be chairing NHS Staff Voices’ virtual public meeting ‘What’s Going On? Stories from the frontline’ on Tuesday 21 April: https://www.facebook.com/events/3002437756444695/

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