Doctors are being “bullied and shamed” into treating patients with Covid-19 despite not having the masks, gowns and eyewear they need to protect themselves from the virus, frontline medics have said.
Others are being told to hold their breath to avoid getting infected because of persistent shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) .
The findings raise questions about how far a huge effort by NHS bosses, ministers and the military has succeeded in banishing previously widespread supply problems with PPE.
“Lack of personal protective equipment continues to be a critical issue. It is heartbreaking to hear that some staff have been told to simply ‘hold their breath’ due to lack of masks,” said Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, the president of the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK).
“Doctors are dying. Nurses are dying. We are devastated, and can no longer stand by and watch as more dedicated colleagues lose their life,” she said.
At least three NHS doctors, two nurses and one midwife have died already after contracting coronavirus.
The DAUK has begun collating anonymous reports from its network of frontline medics about continuing shortages of PPE, which has created confusion, alarm and fear among staff. It has developed an app with a firm called Messly to log shortages.
Based on 500 reports so far from 193 hospital trusts and GP practices, the DAUK says that:
72% of doctors cannot get hold of an FFP3 mask when they need one.
77% report shortages of long-sleeved gowns.
43% cannot always use a visor or goggles when they need them.
The findings also indicate that protective kit is still in short supply for doctors undertaking “aerosol generating procedures” on Covid-19 patients, such as intubating them, where potentially dangerous droplets are expelled from their mouths.
Almost half (49%) of medics performing such procedures cannot always access a gown, 42% an FFP3 mask and 20% proper eye protection, DAUK found.
However, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said a combination of revised PPE guidance issued last week by Public Health England and the NHS drive to get millions more pieces of kit to the frontline had made a big impact on the shortages and helped allay staff’s fears.
“Things are much better than they were a week ago. People on the ground are saying that it’s getting better, though there are still some distribution issues within hospitals,” said Dr Andrew Goddard, the president of the RCP, which represents mainly hospital doctors in England.
Public Health England’s “much clearer” new advice had helped banish the “confusion” many staff felt about what PPE they should wear in certain medical settings in order to reduce their risk, he added.
“In a survey we ran last week 22% of staff said they didn’t have access to the PPE they needed. That is adding to the anxiety and emotional challenge of working in these settings, as working on Covid wards is a scary situation. That 22% needs to become 0% as soon as possible,” he said.
The Twickenham MP Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said: “It is absolutely shocking to hear from medical professionals about the risks they are having to take in providing care for our loved ones and the fear they have of speaking up regarding the availability of appropriate PPE.
“Despite promises from ministers, it’s clear that our frontline health and care workforce still do not have adequate supplies of the correct protective equipment. It is simply unacceptable that so many staff feel they are being put in harm’s way due to shortages of essential kit, in turn risking the health of their loved ones and other patients. They should not need to rely on crowdfunding, donations from schools and makeshift visors to do these critical roles.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are working around the clock to give the NHS, social care and other public services the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.
“Over the weekend we delivered over 34 million pieces of PPE to NHS trusts in England, including over 8.8 million aprons, and seven million facemasks, and we have created a 24-hour hotline which NHS Trusts can call to raise any supply issues.”