POLITICS
21/04/2020 00:01 BST | Updated 21/04/2020 08:48 BST

Union Leaders Demand Judge-Led Inquiry Probes 'Grotesque' PPE Shortages

At least 100 healthcare workers are thought to have died from coronavirus.

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A judge-led public inquiry should investigate the “grotesque” failure to give frontline workers personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic, a trade union body has said. 

The TUC has made the call for an independent probe, starting by the end of 2020, after the website Nursing Notes said on Monday that at least 100 health workers had died from Covid-19. 

Whether frontline workers were threatened with disciplinary action if they refused to work and whether official PPE guidance left them at risk. 

Ministers have repeatedly faced criticism for failing to provide enough PPE since the outbreak began and have blamed “distribution problems”, delays and “international demand” for shortfalls. 

But critics say poor planning and chaos within government have put NHS frontline workers in harm’s way. 

The crisis came to a head last week when health secretary Matt Hancock admitted there could be shortages of protective gowns within days, and on Friday, Public Health England issued guidance that health workers should reuse PPE if stocks run out. 

There have also been reports about care home staff making emergency masks and smocks from bin liners.  

“Every day frontline workers are being forced to risk their lives because they don’t have the proper protective equipment,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said. “And now they are being told just to make do.   

The TUC says an independent judge-led inquiry should examine: 

  • why there were delays in the planning for and delivery of PPE  

  • whether guidance about the need for PPE was robust/timely

  • whether staff were put under pressure to work with inadequate or out-of-date PPE - and if so why 

  • whether staff were threatened with disciplinary action for raising concerns about the lack of PPE - and if so why

  • why the NHS, social and residential care and other workplaces have struggled to get PPE from suppliers 

“This is a grotesque failure of planning and preparedness. It must never be allowed to happen again. Our NHS, social care and key workers deserve better.   

“Right now, the government must sort out the PPE crisis urgently. But we are also calling on ministers to commit to an independent, public inquiry into the failure to provide frontline workers with adequate PPE, kicking off by the end of this year.”

The inquiry should cover the whole workforce, the TUC says, including both public and private sector workers undertaking essential work which requires PPE. 

JACOB KING via Getty Images
Health secretary Matt Hancock as he speaks via video-link during the official opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham.

The call also follows warnings from health managers and other unions. 

On Sunday, the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers publicly criticised ministers for announcing PPE deliveries that failed to materialise.  

A shipment of PPE due to land from Turkey was delayed at the last minute, with the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers issuing a statement expressing “intense frustration and exasperation” on Sunday night. 

The Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Royal College of Nurses have also warned that inadequate supplies of PPE may force staff to stop treating patients.    

At the Downing Street press conference on Monday, chancellor Rishi Sunak tried to address the current shortfalls, saying the government would “pursue every possible option” to secure PPE for the UK.

He said: “This is an international challenge that many other countries are experiencing.

“Alongside the efforts of British businesses, and our embassies around the world, we are working hard to get the PPE our frontline NHS and social care staff need.”

He insisted there were regular shipments despite the “unexpected delays” to the consignment from Turkey.

“Today we unloaded a shipment of 140,000 gowns from Myanmar,” he said.

“We are, of course, continuing to pursue every possible option for PPE procurement.”