By William James and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) – Doctors and health workers criticised the British government on Saturday for suggesting that personal protective equipment (PPE) worn while treating patients infected with coronavirus could be re-used, as supplies run low across the country.
Britain is at or near the peak of a health crisis in which more than 15,000 people have died – the fifth highest national death toll of a pandemic linked to at least 150,000 deaths worldwide.
Data published on Saturday showed 15,464 people have died in British hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus – an increase of 888 in the 24 hours to 1600 GMT on Friday. That increase is higher than recent days, but below the highest daily death toll of 980, seen just over a week ago.
The government issued new guidance to hospitals on Friday setting out that alternatives to fluid-repellent full length gowns may need to be used, including reusable gowns or even long sleeved laboratory coats.
“This guidance is a further admission of the dire situation that some doctors and healthcare workers continue to find themselves in because of government failings,” said Rob Harwood, chairman of the consultants committee at the British Medical Association.
“If it’s being proposed that staff reuse equipment, this must be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence – rather than availability.”
A Department of Health spokesman said the guidance was to ensure that staff knew what to do to minimise risk if shortages did occur, and that the rules remained in line with international standards.
“We’ve got to do more to get the PPE that people need to the frontline,” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said when asked about the situation at the government’s daily news conference.
He acknowledged the shortages but added that a consignment was due to arrive from Turkey on Sunday containing equipment including 400,000 protective gowns.
“We are trying to do everything we can to get the equipment we need,” he said during the televised briefing on Saturday.
The trade union Unite said it had told its members they could lawfully refuse to work to avoid risk of injury, describing the situation over PPE as a “national scandal”.
The Royal College of Nursing said it had written “in the strongest terms” to express its concerns over the rules change.
NHS Providers, a body which represents hospitals and other parts of Britain’s publicly funded National Health Service, said supply levels of gowns were critical.
“It is now clear that some trusts will run out of fully fluid repellent gowns this weekend,” deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said.
Britain’s response to the coronavirus outbreak – which has lagged that of European peers – is a source of increasing political criticism for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering from a spell in intensive care after becoming infected.
The crisis has seen citizens ordered to stay at home and businesses forced to shut during four weeks of restrictions on daily life without precedent in British peacetime history. The lockdown was extended on Thursday for at least three more weeks.
Queen Elizabeth effectively cancelled plans to publicly celebrate her 94th birthday on Tuesday, silencing a traditional ceremonial gun salute because she thought it would not be fitting in the current circumstances.
However, the fundraising efforts of 99-year old war veteran Captain Tom Moore – who has now raised over $29 million for the UK’s National Health Service by walking laps of his garden continued to provide a bright spot for many Britons.
Jenrick announced that Moore would be the guest of honour, via video link, at the opening of a new temporary coronavirus hospital in Harrogate, northern England.
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Toby Chopra and Mike Harrison)