Gown shortages still plague NHS staff

NHS staff continue to face an acute shortage of protective gowns, according to internal documents that reveal the government is still struggling to secure the safety of frontline workers.

Nikou Asgari in London www.ft.com

“Stocks of fluid-repellent gowns and coveralls remain pressured,” said a presentation by NHS Supply Chain, the body which sources medical kit, that was seen by the FT. 

Another slide in the presentation, held on April 29, quoted Keith Willett, director of acute care for NHS England, who acknowledged that the stock of gowns “is better than last week but we are not out of the woods yet”.

The slides underline the strain the pandemic has placed on supplies of personal protective equipment for health and social care workers, at least 108 of whom have died because of the virus, according to figures revealed by foreign secretary Dominic Raab at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.

“Gowns remain the main item we are carefully monitoring and trying to bring in deliveries sooner to ensure supplies are maintained,” Mr Willett said in the presentation. 

The NHS has been struggling to source gowns since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Most of its protective products are imported from Asia and the UK does not have large-scale textile manufacturers producing PPE domestically.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, on Wednesday said the city was down to just a few days’ supply of gowns, with hospitals helping others that had run out. “It is touch and go . . . and that is not a situation we want to be in,” he said.

The government has been criticised for failing to take up offers from companies that are able to make PPE.

Christopher Nieper, chief executive of women’s fashion company David Nieper, said he first contacted the government more than a month ago offering to make reusable gowns for frontline workers.

“We’ve gotten nowhere at all, absolutely nowhere,” he said, despite having spoken in early April to advisers from Deloitte, which is in charge of gown procurement on behalf of the government.

“I proposed the exact gown, exact fabric but they’re not interested in a reusable product, only interested in disposables,” he said, adding that Deloitte’s head of gown procurement “didn’t know how much fabric was required to make one garment”.

Hospital workers in London in a protest calling on the government to provide PPE across the NHS, care sector and other vital public services © Matt Dunham/AP

Mr Nieper’s 300 sewing machinists have instead been churning out thousands of reusable gowns for hospitals in Leicester, Nottingham and Buckinghamshire, among others. 

During Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Raab said three flights had brought gowns from Turkey over the past month. Earlier in the day, he said a shipment of 140,000 gowns had arrived recently from Myanmar.