A report by the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) highlighted concerns among frontline staff that guidance did not specify a high enough level of PPE to properly protect them against infection, while some supplies were substandard or insect-infected.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff were more likely to report experiencing PPE shortages or feeling pressured to work without adequate protection - over twice as many BAME doctors reported experiencing PPE shortages compared with white colleagues.
The BMA has urged the government to learn from ‘these terrible shortcomings’ and listen to the experiences of frontline workers during the first wave of the pandemic to ensure that healthcare workers are properly protected in the future.
Frontline NHS COVID-19 deaths
Employers reported 126 deaths and 8,152 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 among health and care workers by October 2020, according to the committee report. It said that no evidence existed yet to link deaths to PPE shortages, but warned that frontline workers had been left without adequate supplies.
It added that evidence showed that ‘stocks ran perilously low’, while single-use items were reused and some equipment was not fit for purpose. Surveys by staff representative organisations, such as the BMA, showed that at least 30% of staff reported having insufficient PPE.
‘Government thought it was well-placed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic because it had a plan and a stockpile of PPE. However, these were designed for an influenza pandemic and the plans, stockpile and PPE distribution arrangements were inadequate for a coronavirus pandemic,’ the report said.
‘The NHS’s existing suppliers of PPE (mostly from overseas) could not increase supply quickly enough to meet the extreme demand and urgency of the global situation,’ it added.
The report also highlighted issues for BAME staff around PPE - recommending that the government investigates why BAME staff were less likely to report having access to PPE and be tested for PPE.
‘The BMA told us that its surveys showed between two and three times as many BAME doctors as white doctors felt pressured to work without adequate protection. It also told us that it called for BAME staff to be given risk assessments in early April, when it became clear that COVID-19 was having a disproportionately high impact on staff from BAME backgrounds.
'But information from its members suggested that risk assessments were not being carried out until the end of May,’ the report's authors said.
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the report revealed the ‘appalling and awful truth’ about the conditions that health and social care staff were asked to work under during the first wave of the pandemic. He said: ‘This should never have happened and lives should not have been put at risk because of it.
‘The report’s recommendations must be acted upon by the DHSC and the Cabinet Office, within the timescales laid out. The government must learn from these terrible shortcomings – from its poor planning, from its lack of transparency about the PPE buying decisions it made, but most importantly, from those on the “front line”.’
He added the government needed to listen to the experiences of doctors and all health and social care workers to understand the life-threatening risks that they had worked with during the first wave of the pandemic.
The BMA chair told MPs last December that the government misled doctors about stocks of PPE at the height of the pandemic's first wave - and wasted millions of pounds on faulty equipment from unknown suppliers.