NHS workers angered at Hancock's warning not to overuse PPE

Health secretary says protective equipment should be treated like ‘precious resource’

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has urged NHS staff not to overuse personal protective equipment, sparking criticism from doctors’ and nurses’ leaders.

“We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource it is,” he said on Friday. “Everyone should use the equipment they clinically need, in line with the guidelines: no more and no less.”

After weeks of criticism over the lack of vital equipment, Hancock told the daily Downing Street briefing a “herculean effort” was under way to ensure every health and social care worker dealing with coronavirus has the equipment they need.

The government does not recommend the general use of protective face masks to slow the spread of disease, and Hancock warned the public against overusing protective equipment.

He reiterated that hand washing, social distancing and staying at home are the best ways to avoid infection. “A front door is better than any face mask”, he said.

Hancock and the chief nursing officer, Ruth May, declined to give a figure for how many healthcare staff have died after contracting the virus.

The health secretary said a nationwide delivery system had been set up, with the help of the armed forces, to distribute masks, aprons and other equipment to 58,000 healthcare providers.

He said: “We’ve had to create a whole new logistics network, essentially from scratch.” Within a week, every NHS hospital would be receiving daily deliveries, he added.

The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, welcomed the promise that more PPE would reach the frontline but pressed Hancock to ensure his target was met.

Ashworth said: “This isn’t the first time ministers have given NHS and social care staff big promises on PPE. But there has been a mismatch between statements at Downing Street press conferences and the realities facing health and care staff on the ground.

Staff have been raising the lack of PPE for weeks. We hope the government’s plans today deliver the adequate supplies of PPE our brave healthcare staff deserve.”

Doctors’ and nurses’ leaders criticised Hancock’s plan as inadequate, given the growing death toll of NHS staff from coronavirus.

The British Medical Association said PPE shortages could spell “real disaster” for doctors. It also took issue with Hancock’s insistence that the NHS has enough PPE to go round but needs frontline staff to use “no more and no less” than they clinically require.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair, said: “We are dealing with an unknown, highly infectious, and potentially deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of several healthcare workers, including 11 doctors in the UK.

“It is absurd that the people trained to treat this disease are the ones who are not being appropriately protected – and without them, we face real disaster.

“We note the government’s announcement this afternoon … However, PPE should not be a ‘precious resource’ and for NHS staff facing shortages of protection they need today, they don’t want to hear of a plan, but that this vital equipment is made available to the frontline now.”

Susan Masters, director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, also voiced scepticism that Hancock’s pledges would end the supply problems that are causing alarm among staff, and denied nurses were misusing PPE.

Masters said: “These figures on deliveries are only impressive when nursing staff stop contacting me to say what they need to use wasn’t available. The calls are still coming through – people are petrified. They have seen colleagues die already.

“Things have improved in recent days and I credit the government with that. But the safety of nurses and care staff must not be compromised. They are pretty clear about what they need to do to stay safe and they will be angered by any suggestion they cause shortages by misusing kit.”

As well as promising to tackle what he acknowledged was the “enormous challenge” of ensuring PPE reaches those who need it, Hancock said lab capacity had been increased sufficiently to allow any health or social care worker who needs it, to be tested.

He visited a newly opened “mega-lab” in Milton Keynes on Thursday and said 15 drive-through testing centres were available.

He stressed the complexities of meeting demand for PPE against the background of rocketing global demand, and without a significant domestic supply sector.

Diplomatic staff around the world have been pressed into service trying to source equipment, Hancock said, with Whitehall officials in London trying to organise transporting it to the UK.

He praised firms, including Burberry and Rolls-Royce, which have turned their facilities to manufacturing PPE – and urged others to do so, based on requirements published by the government. “If you’ve got production facilities, and you can meet our published specifications, we want to hear from you,” he said.

Appearing alongside Hancock, May underlined the toll, both physical and mental, that treating the virus is having on her frontline colleagues. But she said they were heartened by the public’s support. “The rainbows and NHS signs in the windows lift me, and they lift my colleagues,” she said.

She and Hancock emphasised the importance of the public continuing to use the NHS for conditions unrelated to the coronavirus.


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