NHS staff are still being denied equipment to protect themselves from coronavirus – even though there is a stockpile fit to last for months.
Angry unions say that medics working on the frontline of the health service are not all being given personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent the virus spreading.
Among them are physiotherapists, dietitians, speech and language therapists and paramedics.
Despite having to perform procedures on chests and throats, putting them in close proximity with infected people, the health staff say they don’t get full access to PPE and are at risk.
This is despite the fact that stock shortages that led to PPE rationing in the UK’s first wave in the spring have now been fixed and there is plenty to go around. But official guidance means not all health workers get access to the same level of protection.
It comes as it was revealed today that health and safety inspectors faced ‘political pressure’ during the first wave of Covid-19 to approve PPE that had not been tested for medical use.
Emails seen by the BBC show Health and Safety Executive staff were pushed into green-lighting the purchase of suits made by a pest control company and without the right documents to prove they were safe for medical use.
They later passed the stringent tests they needed to, but not until after the Department of Health had already bought the gear and left it in a warehouse.
The infectiousness of coronavirus means that NHS staff in hospitals must now wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times when treating patients, even if neither have been diagnosed with Covid-19 (Pictured: A medic at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge)
The alliance of unions has raised concerns that workers aren’t getting protective equipment during ‘aerosol-generating procedures’, the Health Service Journal reported.
Those procedures are ones that can force droplets out of people’s lungs when breath is exhaled.
Coronavirus is transported on droplets from the lungs, so when medics do procedures that force out someone’s breath, the risk of them catching the virus from the patient is considerably higher.
This can be a problem for those not treating Covid-19 patients on wards because the procedures might make them spread the virus when they otherwise wouldn’t, because they didn’t know they were ill or didn’t have symptoms.
Organisations in the alliance include ones that represent stroke doctors, paramedics, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, nurses, gastroenterologists, dietitians, and the union Unite.
Chair of the group, Dr Barry Jones, told the HSJ: ‘The evidence on which PHE guidance is based is neither of adequate quality nor reflective of the latest evidence.
‘Months later, nothing has been done, and as a result staff are unprotected – facing illness and even death, and putting their patients and colleagues at unnecessary risk. It’s no surprise that we’re now seeing anxiety and sickness absence on the rise amongst NHS staff.’
NHS WORKERS FURIOUS AT ‘REPURPOSED BIN BAGS’ PPE SUPPLY
NHS workers are furious that they have been given ‘repurposed bin bags’ to help protect them from the second wave of Covid.
The flimsy see-through sacks have been sent to GP’s practices billed as protective gowns to keep staff safe during the second wave of the virus.
In April, nurses at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow posed in bin bags in place of PPE at the height of the pandemic and subsequently contracted the virus.
Bewildered nurses today posted images of them wearing the new ‘gowns’, raising major concerns over the quality of the items and whether they meet strict infection prevention and control (IPC) standards.
Frontline NHS Medics have been given repurposed ‘bin bags’ to help protect them from Covid
Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor and successful author, tweeted: ‘Matt Hancock, please can you explain as a matter of urgency, why, in the midst of the Covid second wave, NHS staff are being issued with bin bags?’
Dr Jones said the group had asked the Department of Health to look again at official guidance on who should use PPE and when.
A Department of Health spokesperson told the HSJ: ‘The guidance around PPE for aerosol generating procedures is kept under review by an expert body, based on the latest evidence, and is agreed between the four nations.’
PPE has been a constant source of controversy throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, with the Government’s supply inadequate at the start of the epidemic.
Hospitals in some areas even resorted to wearing bin bags because they couldn’t get hold of the correct protective equipment.
It has now emerged that there was such an intense scramble to get hold of PPE that safety inspectors were encouraged to approve equipment that did not have the correct paperwork.
Emails obtained by the BBC show that safety inspectors complained of ‘political pressure’ to help the Government buy PPE that hadn’t been tested to hospital standards, and were later chased by ministers to produce proof of safety that didn’t exist.
One company involved in the email chain was PestFix, a pest control company that got a contract to supply £32million worth of ‘isolation suits’ to the Department of Health.
The suits, however, had not been tested to the standard required for hospital use and languished in a warehouse for three months after they were paid for.
One email from a health and safety inspector said: ‘There seems to be quite a bit of “political” pressure to get these through the QA [quality assurance] process.’
Another said: ‘We are being drawn into the legalities of the contract between DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care] and Pestfix and I think we need to seek legal advice on our position and more importantly on what information we provide to DHSC on an informal basis.
‘I have been contacted by … today requesting a statement to the effect that HSE [Health and Safety Executive] were provided with the required documentation by Pestfix which enabled and easement to be granted. This is not factually correct.’
And the company later raised concerns that, after legal campaigners had raised questions about so much money being paid to PestFix without quality tests having been done, it would be leaked that the suits had not been tested properly.
A third email, sent in June, read: ‘We do not want it to be made public knowledge that PPE from PestFix has not passed HSE inspection.’
PestFix told the BBC in a comment that its delivery of the PPE was ‘in compliance with the DHSC’s specification and applicable regulations’.
‘After delivery there was some delay while the product was re-categorised as a PPE product and further testing was carried out to confirm that the product was PPE compliant,’ it added.
MailOnline has contacted PestFix for its full comments.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff throughout the pandemic, with more than 4.7billion items delivered so far and 32billion items ordered to provide a continuous supply to the frontline over the coming months.
‘All PPE products are quality assured and only distributed if they are safe to use.’