RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said nurses were concerned that the standard face mask may not be effective in protecting against new strains of the virus and possible airborne spread in healthcare settings.
The College said it was aware that some NHS trusts are using higher grade face masks in all parts of their hospitals, while others use standard face masks.
“The Government’s silence on this issue is creating a postcode lottery for nursing staff whereby some working on wards have access to the higher-grade face masks and others do not,” said Dame Donna.
“It must stop dragging its feet on this issue. Nursing staff need to have full confidence that they are protected.
“Staff picking up this virus at work are angered at any suggestion they have stopped following the rules – this is down to the new variant and the dangerous shortage of adequate protection.”
One nurse told the PA news agency she feels staff are being treated like “lambs to the slaughter” due to the inadequacy of surgical masks.
Jane, which is not her real name, is a nurse from Yorkshire and member of grassroots campaign group Nurses United.
She said she contracted Covid in April last year after helping a coronavirus patient inside an ambulance, while both she and the patient were wearing a surgical mask.
She has suffered from debilitating Long Covid symptoms since, even taking the last four weeks off work due to chronic fatigue – nine months after her initial infection.
“I feel kind of like half the human that I was,” Jane said.
She added that failing to protect all staff with suitable PPE made staff feel like “commodities”.
“In critical care areas they’re in full PPE but in the actual wards we’re still in surgical masks… the issue is that the surgical facemasks aren’t effective enough,” she said.
“On top of the trauma, the PTSD and everything else that staff are feeling… people feel let down, scared and vulnerable – like we’re just commodities or lambs to the slaughter.
“People start doubting who they’re working for and what they’re doing.”
In a letter to Jo Churchill, minister for prevention, public health and primary care, Dame Donna said staff were “aware that fluid repellent surgical face masks and face coverings, as currently advised in most general healthcare settings and patients’ homes, are not protective against smaller infective aerosols despite the Government video outlining risks of infective aerosols in the air.”
In a further letter to Sarah Albon, chief executive of the HSE, and signed by Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA council, Dame Donna said: “In the absence of clarity on the reasons behind the new variants’ increased infectivity, we are calling for the HSE to take a precautionary approach and to use your role as a regulator to ensure employers and those developing national guidance meet and understand their responsibilities.”
She added: “Adequate supplies of PPE that meet the required specifications are vital to support nursing staff to do their jobs safely.
“Without support to use suitable PPE, nursing staff are putting their own lives, and the lives of their colleagues, families and patients, at risk.”
In the letter, the RCN cites NHS data showing a 22 per cent rise in the average number of health care staff off due to Covid-19 in the first week of this month compared with the last week in December.
From December 31 to January 6 an average of 41,641 employees were off each day, up from 34,210 for the period December 24 to 30.
Additional reporting by PA Media.