Updated IPC advice published last week confirms that 'an FFP3 respirator (or equivalent), must be worn by staff when...caring for patients with a suspected or confirmed infection spread by the airborne route (during the infectious period)'.
Previous advice recommended higher-grade respiratory protection only when performing aerosol-generating procedures, despite pressure from clinicians for an overhaul.
The update comes after months of pressure from doctors' leaders and has been welcomed by the COVID Airborne Protection Alliance, which brings together 18 organisations representing healthcare staff.
Dr Jenny Vaughan, chair of the Doctors Association UK - which is a member of CAPA - said: 'For far too long, far too many of our colleagues have been left exposed unnecessarily to COVID-19 because their PPE was simply inadequate.
'The public were put at more risk as a result. This new guidance, issued after months of work by the CAPA, draws the clear line: no one should be expected to work to save lives if putting their own at risk avoidably was part of the deal. Now it is agreed. This should never happen and this is how the risks, not lives, are cut.'
BMA occupational medicine co-chair Professor Raymond Agius said: 'Now that doctors and healthcare workers in hospitals will be wearing RPE it makes no sense that GP colleagues are still having to make do with ineffective surgical masks, often in small and cramped surgeries, particularly as we know that the Omicron variant is highly transmissible.
'Our own guidance advises GPs and practice staff to ensure that they wear FFP3 or FFP2 respirators depending on the level of risk identified in their risk assessment. We’ve also urged NHS England to provide FFP2 respirators as default for all practice staff.
'With this change in guidance, we ask that, without delay, GPs and their staff have better access to safe and effective RPE through the newly announced national portal.'
The BMA wrote to NHS England late last year demanding access for GPs to higher-grade masks, and warned at the time that there was 'no system in place to provide GPs with respirator masks, nor for fit testing'.
An NHS England update for general practice last week said the DHSC had 'confirmed FFP3 face masks are now available for general practices to order via the PPE portal'.
It added: 'Practices must have undertaken the necessary risk assessments and arranged for staff to have been fit tested before ordering the equipment. It is a legal requirement on employers that all tight fitting RPE, such as, FFP3 masks must be fit tested on all health and care staff who may be required to wear one to ensure an adequate seal/fit according to the manufacturer’s guidance.'