Panorama reveals host of government failures to protect NHS workers

Their advisers told them to stockpile gowns - they didn't.

A must-watch Panorama episode yesterday revealed how the government has failed to provide personal protective equipment to NHS workers dealing with covid-19 patients.

Several NHS workers have since died of the disease – perhaps as a result of these government failures.

Here are some of the mis-steps, misleading claims and mistakes which have put frontline NHS workers in such danger.

Misleading ‘1bn items of PPE’ claim

Government ministers like Grant Shapps have repeatedly claimed that the UK has delivered over one billion items of PPE since the crisis began.

This figure had previously been taken as fact by journalists at the BBC as well as Conservative cheerleaders in the press.

However, Panorama said it has received documents from “inside the supply chain” which show the government’s claim is misleading.

Firstly, over half the items are surgical gloves. These are not the items there is a shortage of. And this number has been doubled by counting them per glove rather than per pair.

Secondly, the figure includes things like cleaning equipment, waste bags, detergent and paper towels.

Thirdly, the second-biggest item are plastic aprons. These have short sleeves and do not offer as much protection as medical gowns. One A&E doctor on Panorama described these aprons as “like something you would expect a dinner lady to wear. It’s like a pinny, it’s plastic, it’s flimsy. You put it round your neck. It does nothing.”

Out of date masks are being used

One nurse shows that his box of masks are out of date. When he lifts up the date sticker, it shows that the original use-by-date was even longer ago than the update use-by-date. So they’ve gone out of date twice.

At Left Foot Forward, we’ve also seen evidence of this. One doctor who is intubating covid-19 patients sent us a picture of his masks. An expiry date of 2019 had been stuck over an expiry date of 2016.

This doctor also told us that new masks were being delivered that had not been fit tested on anyone. These masks had no vents and were “incredibly claustrophobic,” he said. When he questioned this, he was told by a colleague “don’t worry, we’ve been told it’s OK.”

The government didn’t stockpile any gowns

Governments have been expecting a pandemic for decades. In 2009, the Labour government’s guidance said that we should stockpile gowns, face masks and eye protection in case of a pandemic.

However, Panorama said that successive governments have failed to buy any hospital gowns at all – despite their own advisers warning that gowns were needed in a stockpile.

Public health expert Professor John Ashton commented: “It’s breathtaking that there were no gowns at all in stock. Breathtaking!”

As well as Matt Hancock, previous Health Secretaries Jeremy Hunt and Andrew Lansley must take some of the blame. Their responsibilities include procurement.

…or visors, swabs or body bags

This kit is necessary for protection, testing and for the safe disposal of dead bodies – but the government didn’t stockpile any of them.

20 million respirator masks have gone missing

According to Panorama, 33 million respirator masks were on the government’s original stockpile procurement list in 2009 but only 12 million have since been handed out.

The government refuses to explain what happened to the other 20 million but said that there was “limited demand which is one reason why they haven’t all been distributed”.

UK-made PPE is being exported abroad because the UK has been too slow

The boss of a company who makes the special fabric needed for a lot of PPE said he wanted to supply the NHS. He’d been writing to ministers, MPs and Public Health England but had not heard back. So, he was exporting his fabric to the USA instead.

Similarly, the Guardian have reported that textile firms were being ignored because the government wanted a ‘big name’ fashion brand like Burberry. Kate Hills, founder of Make It British, said: ““They’re just picking out brand names,”

The government downgraded PPE guidance because there wasn’t enough

In January, the government put coronavirus into the category of a “high consequence infectious disease”. For this category of disease, the Health and Safety Executive recommends all staff wear a full face visor, a respirator face mask and a gown. The government had a legal requirement to ensure staff have all this.

In mid-March though, the government downgraded coronavirus. As it was no longer a “high consequence infections disease”, the government could then legally get away with providing less kit to staff in all but the most dangerous situations.

Instead of a gown, they just have to provide a plastic apron. Instead of a respirator face mask and a full face visor, they only have to provide a surgical mask.

According to Professor John Ashton, coronavirus was downgraded for political reasons: “This must have been done because they realised tha they weren’t going to have enough equipment and they needed somehow to have a story that stacked up with being caught out on supplies.”

The government’s excuse for the downgrade is that there was now a lab test and the mortality rate was low.

Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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