Coronavirus: Medics ‘threatened with sack’ if they speak of PPE shortages

Doctors and nurses who speak out about the lack of personal protection equipment for hospital staff are being threatened with dismissal, they have said, raising fears that health authorities are trying to hide the extent of the crisis.

Kat Lay | Katie Gibbons 

In a letter to the prime minister, 10,000 NHS staff demanded better protection. The government and health service chiefs insist there are adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and say remaining delivery issues are being resolved.

However, in the first acknowledgement that there is a problem when the authorities sought to assure the public there was not, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, admitted she had “optimistically” said ten days ago that issues with PPE had been resolved but they had since reoccurred.

She said: “The distribution element has been a little bit tricky at times and we have now taken a whole strand of the logistics, including with the army’s support actually, out so that we are developing a UK position on that stock and distribution flow.”

The army has been brought in to move equipment around the country, while officials have adopted a “push” model of sending supplies to hospitals even before they are requested. However, some frontline staff continue to report being without protective equipment. They also say they have concerns about whether Public Health England guidance on what to wear is sufficient, as in some cases it appears to conflict with World Health Organisation rules.

Dr Rinesh Parmar, chairman of the Doctors’ Association UK, said their inbox was filling up with emails from people concerned about the issue but “being told they are going to lose their job if they post about it on social media”.

He said: “They raise concerns internally and nothing happens. It feels like those concerns land on deaf ears. They then take to social media and get told their social media is being monitored and they are going to lose their jobs.

“At a time when we need every single doctor on the front line, doing what they can, it is just not helpful for people to be afraid.” The authorities had been expected to update PPE guidance over the weekend, but they were flooded with more than 1,000 responses to a draft sent out to professional bodies. The Times understands Public Health England expects to release a new version today. Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the draft had been “vague” on exactly when GPs should wear protective equipment.

Amid reports that community groups were responding to shortages with efforts such as sewing scrubs or 3d-printing visors an expert warned that new equipment could prove “worse than nothing” if not properly produced. Dr Al Edwards of Reading University said: “Poorly functioning equipment that only gives the false promise of protection could be worse than nothing.” There was no reason, however, why local small-scale production should not help if overseen by experts.

Ten thousand NHS workers are among 20,000 signatories to a letter asking for Boris Johnson to ensure all frontline medical staff have the correct face masks, goggles, gowns and gloves.

A consultant in Gloucestershire said: “Our ward covers confirmed Covid-19-positive patients. I was on it all weekend. We only have plastic aprons, gloves and surgical masks. There is one shared visor per bay [of six patients] for all healthcare workers. No gowns.”

Dr Julia Patterson, of EveryDoctor, co-ordinating the letter, said: “Patients are dying, healthcare workers are dying. It’s time to act.”

One London paramedic said the plastic apron, gloves and surgical mask that he had been issued would be more suitable for people making sandwiches. “It feels like every day I’m exposing myself and potentially my family to this virus,” he told the BBC.

A London Ambulance Service spokesman said: “We have sufficient stocks of protective equipment for staff.” An NHS spokesman said: “Staff continue to speak in a personal, trade union or professional body capacity, and it is self-evident from print and broadcast media coverage throughout this incident that staff are able and do in fact speak freely.”