The Government PPE Blunder Doesn't Just Affect NHS Workers, It's Putting All Our Lives In Danger

Since those on the frontline can’t get enough PPE, the general public is not being advised to wear face masks – despite the evidence, writes journalist Sunny Hundal.
PPE shortages endanger us all
PPE shortages endanger us all
Getty Editorial

Here’s a simple question: should you be wearing face-masks outside during this pandemic? The answer seems to be obviously, yes, especially if the Far East is any guide. Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – which is world renowned – recommends people wear masks, even if homemade. Germany is also recommending citizens wear masks in public places. So why isn’t the UK Department of Health?

This question is more important than it looks at first glance. The controversy over face masks increasingly looks like the UK government is trying to cover up its failings, and then trying to get scientists to back them up.

“The government message should be unambiguous: “Yes, we don’t have enough PPE for NHS workers because we made some mistakes. Please make your own masks and help protect yourself and others.””

The UK has an unprecedented crisis on its hands, one it couldn’t predict. We should cut them some slack over that. But it is also a crisis it could have better prepared for once alarm-bells started ringing. The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) is a good example. Every country in the world is trying to buy ship-loads of PPE, but since only a few nations can produce it at large scale there is a global shortage.

That is, unless you started planning earlier, which is what Germany did. Even by late April, Germany and other nations were able to source PPE from the UK because “their offers of help had been repeatedly ignored by the British Government,” reported the Telegraph.

Worse, the government won’t admit it was slow to act and is now trying to cover that up. On Tuesday, a senior civil servant admitted that ministers were told they could take part in a EU-wide PPE procurement scheme but decided not to take part. It was a “political decision,” he said. This sparked worries they didn’t want to look like they were still part of the EU.

The UK is so short of PPE even frontline NHS workers can’t get enough to adequately protect themselves. On 9 April, Dr Chowdhury, a London-based consultant died from Covid-19. Just weeks ago, he had posted a plea to Boris Johnson on his Facebook page for equipment. But it was too late. As recently as last week, NHS staff were being told to wear “aprons” as protective gear had run out, despite health secretary Matt Hancock insisting that guidance for NHS workers hasn’t changed.

And now it seems even scientists are being pressured to support the government.

On Tuesday, ITV’s Robert Peston asked at the daily briefing: “Is it correct you are not ready to change your mind on the usefulness to the general public on wearing masks because you don’t want to deprive healthcare workers of masks?”

Hancock said: “We are advised by the science... and we listen to what the scientists say.” Don’t look at me guv.

But that’s not the whole picture. When pressed again, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam was a bit more careful: “I have always said, we will keep the evidence under review, and we are absolutely doing that. I have also said we will change if we feel the evidence is driving us that way, and advise ministers accordingly...

“There is an absolutely enduring principle here that SAGE places great value and prime importance on never jeopardising the supplies of PPE to our health and social care workers. And that is a line we are not going to cross under any circumstances.”

I understand that NHS workers should get priority for protective equipment. But this isn’t putting the science ahead of political considerations – it is the opposite. Since NHS workers can’t get enough PPE, thanks to the government’s lack of planning, we are not being advised to wear it either.

It is true that not all scientists agree we should wear face masks. Many say it can make people complacent and feel safer than they actually are – since masks still allow some particles to get through. But studies show masks do reduce spread of flu and some coronaviruses. A recent piece in The Lancet made a simple but effective point: “As evidence suggests Covid-19 could be transmitted before symptom onset, community transmission might be reduced if everyone, including people who have been infected but are asymptomatic and contagious, wear face masks.”

This government has already had criticism for contradictory messages. Just days before the lockdown, they had allowed the huge Cheltenham races to go ahead, while Boris Johnson himself admitted going out and shaking people’s hands. Now again, it looks unwilling to stick to a line to save its skin.

The message should be unambiguous: “Yes, we don’t have enough PPE for NHS workers because we made some mistakes. Please make your own masks and help protect yourself and others.”

During a crisis we need to be able to trust our government is doing the best it can. Mistakes always get made of course. But lying and obfuscation can quickly turn into distrust, fuel conspiracy theories and lead to a breakdown in law and order. The scandal over lack of PPE for NHS workers isn’t just a matter of government incompetence, it is putting all our lives in danger.

Sunny Hundal is a journalist and commentator.