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Fears are growing for the safety of nurses, nursing support workers and doctors in the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic as supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) continue to be woefully inadequate.

Submitting evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee, the Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair, reports that members from all sectors, but particularly those in care homes and general practices, have “either no or poor access to PPE, and no hand sanitiser.”

She goes on to say that there has been a “disproportionate focus on ensuring supplies only for NHS hospitals” which is “alarming and cannot continue” and that the issue is causing “anxiety and fear at an already challenging time for nursing staff.”

The Government is continuing to come under intense pressure to accelerate the supply of PPE to the wider health and care system as the numbers of people dying in the UK, including doctors, nurses, surgeons, and other NHS workers, rises.

According to the BBC, the Government has said there have been 27 verified deaths of NHS staff during the pandemic. But others, including retired staff who still worked within the NHS, have also died.

While the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has stated that he is unaware of any link between the deaths and a lack of PPE, he has said that an investigation will be carried out into the extent to which health workers have caught the virus on the frontline.

Amid reports that frontline health workers are being forced to treat patients in homemade protective gowns made from bin bags and curtains, the Government has issued an urgent plea to all UK industries asking that any firms which can produce protective equipment should come forward.

Expert legal view

Mary Smith, specialist personal injury lawyer from Novum Law’s Bristol office said:

“Our hearts go out to those health and care workers on the frontline of the coronavirus battle that leave their families and go into work every day, putting themselves at risk to help their patients and save lives.

“It is inexcusable that staff working in hospitals, the community, care homes and hospices are still inadequately protected to carry out their work safely. The Government must do everything it can to ensure PPE supplies which meet the required safety standards are delivered as soon as possible.

“While no one could have predicted the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, the current situation certainly raises the fundamental question: could the Government have done more at an earlier stage to stock up on PPE?

“The Department of Health & Social Care owes a duty of care to all healthcare professionals to protect their health, safety and welfare, including forward planning for pandemics. This means providing the appropriate protective equipment to ensure they can continue to carry out their critical, life-saving roles safely.

“Failure to provide adequate supplies of PPE could lead to future legal action from healthcare workers or the families of NHS workers who have died or become unwell as a result of contracting the virus in the course of their employment.”

What is PPE?

PPE stands for personal protective equipment. It is one crucial way to both stop the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) and keep healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, nursing support staff and other caregivers) currently on the pandemic’s frontlines as safe as possible.

PPE works as a barrier between an individual’s skin, mouth, nose, or eyes and viral and bacterial infections. In a medical setting, PPE may include items such as: medical gloves, fluid repellent gowns, disposable aprons, filtering facepiece respirators, fluid resistant surgical masks and eye protection.

Public Health England has published guidance on the personal safety equipment healthcare workers should be wearing.

Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002

According to the Health and Safety Executive, there are PPE laws in place to protect users. The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (as amended) give the main requirements.

The Regulations place a duty on responsible persons who put PPE on the market to comply with the following requirements:

  • PPE must satisfy the basic health and safety requirements that are applicable to that
    type or class of PPE.
  • The appropriate conformity assessment procedure must be carried out.
  • A CE mark must be affixed on the PPE.