Despite repeated assurances by the government for over a week that millions of units of protective equipment have been delivered to the front line, a BMA survey with 2,000 responses, revealed large numbers of doctors still expected to care for Covid-19 patients with little or no PPE (personal protective equipment).
This comes amid increasing numbers of deaths among healthcare workers in the UK and in Italy where doctors’ representatives are linking over 100 deaths to lack of PPE.
According to the survey, more than half of doctors working in high-risk environments said there were either shortages or no supply at all of adequate face masks, while 65% said they did not have access to eye protection.
Alarmingly, 55% said they felt pressurised to work in a high-risk area despite not having adequate PPE.
Almost 90% of GPs in contact with Covid patients reported either shortages or no access at all to eye protection, and 62% reported problems with supply of face masks.
More than half of GPs who responded said they had had to buy their own face masks or eye protection, with only 2% saying they felt fully protected against the virus at work.
The survey was launched following the Government’s updating of PPE guidelines for doctors and mounting anecdotal evidence that frontline workers simply don’t have access to enough masks, gloves and gowns.
This survey shows that doctors are not being provided with the appropriate protective equipment as specified by the government’s own guidelines.
One hospital doctor said: ‘The quality of our eye protection and apron is useless. Some of the PPE provided feels like a tick-box exercise just for psychological reassurance.’
Another doctor said: ‘I am the only muslim anaesthetist with a beard in my department. I am being forced to shave my beard due to unavailability of hood masks with respirator, and a bearded doctor can’t pass a fit mask test.’
While one GP told the BMA: ‘I feel betrayed by the government who are not transparent enough to say that they do not have the ideal supplies and are therefore asking us to put ourselves in harms’ way with sub-optimal protection.’
The survey also revealed that despite the government stating that it was ramping up testing for healthcare workers, only 195 respondents said they had ready access to tests. Furthermore, 40% of both hospital doctors and GPs said colleagues having to self-isolate because of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 was currently having a significant impact on capacity to treat patients.
The survey also found:
- Just 12% of hospital doctors said they felt fully protected from the virus at work.
- Nearly 30% of hospital doctors said their trust did not offer any Covid-19 testing for staff with self-isolating symptoms.
- 36% of hospital doctors said capacity had significantly reduced because of colleagues having to self-isolate.
- 27% of hospital doctors reported running low on basic anti-infection supplies such as soap.
Chair of the BMA, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘In less than three days, nearly 2,000 doctors across the UK have told us how desperate their situation really is.
‘Despite assurances from the Government that personal protective equipment is making its way to the front line, this snapshot survey reveals a very different picture – healthcare workers in the UK simply do not have enough protective equipment to keep them safe.
‘We are weeks into the most serious health crisis this country has faced in modern times and doctors are telling us they don’t have any or don’t have enough protective equipment.
‘Until now, we have been hearing anecdotal stories about shortages or a lack of PPE, this survey confirms the extent of this failure.
‘Doctors report being put into situations which clearly contravene the PHE guidance issued last week.
‘They’ve told us they are pressurised to see a patient without adequate protection, or to perform a high-risk procedure where they are at risk of becoming infected, or where they may go on to infect another patient – and all because they don’t have the right PPE. They are putting themselves and the lives of their patients at risk.
‘A majority of doctors reported that they had not had either the advice or the training needed to properly fit, put on and take off PPE; without this training they increase their risk of exposure to virus and of spreading it.
‘For weeks now the Government has assured us that equipment is being rolled out, that the supply issues will be fixed. It has also repeatedly told healthcare workers they will have priority access to testing.
‘This survey shows this is not the reality and doctors have told us they have little confidence in the Government to support and protect them. Doctors, indeed all healthcare workers, feel badly let down.
‘Increasing numbers of healthcare workers are dying from Covid-19 in the UK, including four doctors, and it is frankly disgraceful that frontline staff are still expected to work unprotected.
‘We must protect doctors so they can protect patients.
‘The Government must get a grip on this situation now and give us cast iron assurances that each and every single doctor can be guaranteed access to PPE and be properly protected against Covid-19.’
- Doctors in Unite demands transparency from the government about the real state of affairs with respect to the current reserves, on-going production and distribution of PPE.
Health and social care workers are working long hours in stressful conditions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government owe it to us to be honest, and acknowledge our very real and widespread experience with shortage of appropriate PPE and explain to us why it is lacking.
It is the duty of the employer to ensure that the working environment is safe for employees.
As a trade union we contend that the current situation in health and social care with respect to Covid-19 and PPE is not safe for either patients or workers.
We believe that health and social care workers should not work without appropriate PPE, as to do so endangers the worker and the patient.
We do not believe that health and social care workers, including porters and cleaners, should inadvertently carry infection from one patient to another through lack of disposable equipment.
Research has shown that while approximately one in five will suffer severe symptoms, and approximately one in twenty may die, the vast majority of the population will suffer a mild illness – some so mild that they are unaware they are infectious.
We must therefore assume that everyone is infectious and protect ourselves accordingly.
Failure to do this will result in health and social care workers becoming infected en masse, and unavailable for work in large numbers.
This will put greater strain on the NHS and social care than already exists.
It will result in patients becoming infected by health and social care workers. Consequently, and disgracefully, some patients and workers will needlessly die.
We demand that industry is immediately repurposed to produce appropriate PPE in adequate quantities to properly protect staff.
At the very least this should be long sleeved gowns to cover all clothes, gloves, plastic overshoes, a mask (preferably FFP3, since coughs and sneezes are also aerosol generating events) and eye and face protection for all workers in the community. Critical care workers would need considerably greater protection.
We demand to know where this equipment is being produced, in what quantities, and when and how it will be delivered to the front line.
If the government will not give us this information we can only assume that the PPE is not available.
Given that at the time of writing we are still to feel the full force of the pandemic in the UK, this would demonstrate a total abdication of the government’s responsibility to keep the population safe.
We reject any accusation that we are engaging in political point scoring. We believe that it is the duty of the trade union movement to draw attention to the harmful effects of government policy and to demand that the population (workers and patients) receive proper care.
Failure to draw attention to damaging government policy now will only lead to far worse consequences in later months, when the full force of Covid-19 has hit, when people have seen their relatives refused critical care because there are not enough ventilators for everyone, and there is not sufficient staff to look after them.
People will quite rightly ask why the trade unions and professional organisations did not speak out.
It has been recently reported that in 2016 then Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt, now chair of the Health Select Committee rejected stockpiling of PPE for health and social care workers on the ground of cost.
It is clear that the health of the nation has been put firmly behind the strength of the economy in terms of government priority.