Repurpose industry now to tackle PPE shortage, says doctors' union

UK industry should be 'immediately repurposed' to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) to tackle shortages that have left frontline NHS staff unsafe during the coronavirus outbreak, a major health union has warned.

Factory production (Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images)

Doctors in Unite has hit out at a 'dire shortage' of PPE for frontline health and social care staff - warning that despite government promises to increase deliveries, equipment is 'in very short supply and what is available does not adequately protect from infection'.

The union says it is 'wholly unacceptable' that some staff have been forced to work with local schools to 3D print items of PPE, or to buy their own from DIY stores - and has warned that a government hotline set up to help clinicians order extra kit does not work.

Emphasising evidence that many patients with COVID-19 will experience symptoms so mild they may not even be noticeable, the union warns that staff must assume all patients with whom they come into contact could be infected.

PPE shortage

'Failure to do this will result in health and social care workers becoming infected en masse, and unavailable for work in large numbers,' Doctors in Unite warned. 'This will put greater strain on the NHS and social care than already exists.

'It will result in patients becoming infected by health and social care workers. Consequently, and disgracefully, some patients and workers will needlessly die.'

Almost 400m items of PPE have been delivered to health and care staff over the past two weeks, according to the government, with more than 600,000 FFP3 masks and over 4.18m surgical facemasks set for delivery today alone.

However, shortages continue to be reported by frontline staff - and confirmation came this week that a fourth UK doctor had died after being infected with COVID-19 as the total number of confirmed UK cases rose to almost 30,000 on 1 April, with more than 2,300 deaths.

Reports have also emerged of doctors being ordered not to speak publicly about shortages of PPE - and being blocked from protecting themselves with kit purchased to top up PPE provided by the NHS.

Protecting NHS staff

Manufacturing capacity should be immediately directed to producing 'appropriate PPE in adequate quantities to properly protect staff', Doctors in Unite said. It added: 'At the very least this should be long-sleeved gowns to cover all clothes, gloves, plastic overshoes, a mask (preferably FFP3, since coughs and sneezes are also aerosol generating events) and eye and face protection for all workers in the community. Critical care workers would need considerably greater protection.'

The union called for 'greater transparency' from the government about the extent of current supplies and for information on how stocks are being topped up and improved.

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'We are working around the clock to give the NHS and the wider social care sector the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.

'In the past two weeks the NHS Supply Chain has delivered 397m pieces of PPE equipment, and another 4.7m facemasks were delivered today.

'While we are confident that enough supply is now reaching the frontline, we appreciate there were limited distribution problems to begin with while we dealt with a new demand caused by this emerging epidemic.

'The full weight of the government is behind this effort and we continue to work closely with industry, social care providers, the NHS, NHS Supply Chain and the army so all our NHS and care staff have the protection they deserve.'

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