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The government has been unable to say how much personal protective equipment is still lacking in the fight against coronavirus, as the number of NHS staff confirmed to have died of the illness continues to climb.
Health chiefs boast that millions of pieces of kit – masks, gloves and aprons – have been dished out since the outbreak began. But the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) could not tell HuffPost UK how much more was needed.
It comes amid complaints from workers and their unions that frontline staff are not being adequately protected. Although the amount of PPE is high, much of it must be changed daily or even hourly, and there are more than a million frontline health and social care workers who need it. That’s before even considering other sectors such as bus drivers, of whom 20 have died in London alone since the outbreak began.
Dame Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, has said she is hearing from nurses every day that they do not have enough protective equipment, while staff in care homes have put out emergency appeals for help while awaiting vital deliveries of masks, gloves and aprons.
Meanwhile, as of Thursday, 27 NHS staff are known to have died after contracting coronavirus.
The Department of Health and Social Care says it has so far delivered 923m pieces of PPE to the frontline, including 173m masks; 163m aprons; 1.3m gowns and 440m pairs of gloves.
But large-scale deliveries do not necessarily mean every staff member has what they need.
There are around 1.6m NHS staff in the UK, spread across hospitals and the community, and the PPE needs of each individual vary widely depending on their job, and even the given day. Some needing a full change of equipment between each patient.
Any medical professional working in a high-risk situation, such as preparing a patient for ventilation, could only use their PPE once. Aprons, masks, gloves and gowns should also be discarded after a single use.
Other items, such as protective goggles, can be re-used if strict hygiene procedures are followed.
When HuffPost UK asked the DHSC for a rough idea of the amount of PPE needed each week, a spokesperson simply offered a breakdown of how much had been delivered around the Easter bank holiday weekend.
Labour MP Helen Hayes, who put out an emergency appeal on Twitter on behalf of a care home in her Dulwich and West Norwood constituency, said the government has not carried out a detailed enough analysis of what is needed where.
She said social care staff, around a third of which are employed through local councils rather than the NHS, including those in care homes – are also being put at risk as a result.
“The problems accessing PPE experienced in the social care sector across the country are shocking and they are leading to tragic consequences,” Hayes, who co-chairs a parliamentary group on social care, told HuffPost.
“In addition to supply chain issues, this speaks to the lack of engagement with and regard for the social care sector by the government over the last 10 years.
“The diversity of care settings and providers and their differing requirements for PPE have not been well understood and that has contributed to unacceptable delays in need being met.”
Reports of “blanket” deliveries of certain amounts of PPE have left some bigger care facilities with serious shortages, while smaller ones have more than they need, experts say.
In a joint statement, care-worker unions the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Unison, Unite, GMB and TUC said a “critical lack” of protective equipment and testing had allowed the virus to “sweep through” the sector.
“Social care is facing a crisis without precedent. Problems with supplies of protective equipment and a lack of testing is causing much anxiety amongst employers, staff, and the families of the people they care for. Many care home residents and care workers have already died,” the unions said on Thursday.
“People who rely on social care are often more vulnerable to catching and dying from Covid-19. Yet a month into this crisis, many care workers are still working without suitable PPE, despite their heightened risk of exposure to the virus and to spreading it.
“A critical lack of PPE and testing of social care staff and service users is putting them at unnecessary risk of exposure – and means we are almost certainly underestimating how far the virus has spread.”
Dave Carr, a critical care nurse at Guy’s and St Thomas’ in central London, believes the use of PPE should be extended even further.
The 57-year-old, who was due to retire this week but delayed his plans due to the crisis, produced a video calling for bus drivers to also be given safety equipment.
He told HuffPost UK: “A lot of our nurses come to work by bus, and a lot of support staff, including cleaners, rely on night buses because the Tube is too expensive.
“A lot of people can’t afford to live in central London and need to travel in to the hospital, so bus drivers are absolutely vital for us.
“When we heard last week that five bus drivers had died, as the total was then, I was happy to do whatever I could to support them – without them, our frontline staff can’t get to work.
“When people clapped for the NHS last week, my unit returned the clap for public transport workers.”
Union bosses have also called for bus drivers to be provided with adequate PPE, and have their cabs properly sealed off to protect them. Outside London, drivers are calling for only cashless payments to be accepted, to limit their public interaction.
Unite national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton, said: “Bus drivers across the UK are becoming incredibly fearful for their safety.
“Most bus companies have introduced safety measures but clearly more needs to be done.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday he accepted the government needed “to do more” for the care sector, which is why he had unveiled a new plan to give workers badges. They will allow those in the care sector priority access to shops, among other privileges.
Hancock had previously vowed: “We won’t rest until everyone has the PPE they need.”