As the number of cases of COVID-19 in the UK continues to rise it has become increasingly clear that there is a dire shortage of appropriate PPE for health and social care workers.

There have been repeated assurances from the government that there is plenty of appropriate PPE. However it is widely reported from the front line that PPE is in very short supply, and that what is available does not adequately protect from infection. Deliveries do not arrive and hotlines that have been set up do not work. 

In desperation many health and social care workers have taken it upon themselves to source their own equipment from DIY stores, and some have made agreements with local secondary schools to make visors on 3D printers. This situation is wholly unacceptable.

Doctors in Unite de­mands transparency from the government about the real state of affairs with respect to the current reserves, on-going production and distribution of PPE. Health and social care workers are working long hours in stressful conditions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government owe it to us to be honest, and acknowledge our very real and widespread experience with shortage of appropriate PPE and explain to us why it is lacking.

It is the duty of the employer to ensure that the working environment is safe for employees. As a trade union we contend that the current situation in health and social care with respect to COVID-19 and PPE is not safe for either patients or workers. We believe that health and social care workers should not work without appropriate PPE, as to do so endangers the worker and the patient. We do not believe that health and social care workers, including porters and cleaners, should inadvertently carry infection from one patient to another through lack of disposable equipment.

Research has shown that while approximately one in five will suffer severe symptoms, and approximately one in twenty may die, the vast majority of the population will suffer a mild illness – some so mild that they are unaware they are infectious.

We must therefore assume that everyone is infectious and protect ourselves accordingly. Failure to do this will result in health and social care workers becoming infected en masse, and unavailable for work in large numbers. This will put greater strain on the NHS and social care than already exists. It will result in patients becoming infected by health and social care workers. Consequently, and disgracefully, some patients and workers will needlessly die.

We demand that industry is immediately repurposed to produce appropriate PPE in adequate quantities to properly protect staff. At the very least this should be long sleeved gowns to cover all clothes, gloves, plastic overshoes, a mask (preferably FFP3, since coughs and sneezes are also aerosol generating events) and eye and face protection for all workers in the community. Critical care workers would need considerably greater protection. 

We demand to know where this equipment is being produced, in what quantities, and when and how it will be delivered to the front line. 

If the government will not give us this information we can only assume that the PPE is not available. Given that at the time of writing we are still to feel the full force of the pandemic in the UK, this would demonstrate a total abdication of the government’s responsibility to keep the population safe.

We reject any accusation that we are engaging in political point scoring. We believe that it is the duty of the trade union movement to draw attention to the harmful effects of government policy and to demand that the population (workers and patients) receive proper care. 

Failure to draw attention to damaging government policy now will only lead to far worse consequences in later months, when the full force of COVID-19 has hit, when people have seen their relatives refused critical care because there are not enough ventilators for everyone, and there is not sufficient staff to look after them. People will quite rightly ask why the trade unions and professional organisations did not speak out.

It has been recently reported1 that in 2016 then Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt, now chair of the Health Select Committee rejected stockpiling of PPE for health and social care workers on the ground of cost. It is clear that the health of the nation has been put firmly behind the strength of the economy in terms of government priority.

Dr Jackie Applebee 

Chair, Doctors in Unite

Dr Rinesh Parmar

Chair, Doctors’ Association UK

Dr Gary Marlowe 

Chair, BMA London Regional Council (signing in a personal capacity)

Michael Forster 

Chair, Health Campaigns Together

John Puntis and Tony O’Sullivan 

Chairs, Keep Our NHS Public

Professor Wendy Savage 

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/27/advice-on-protective-gear-for-nhs-staff-was-rejected-owing-to-cost