NHS face mask supply ‘could be put at risk’ if public advised to wear them

  • Video report by ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan

The NHS’s supply of face masks could be jeopardised if the Government begins advising the public to wear them, hospital bosses have warned.

Scientific advisers for the government are carrying out a review of the use of face masks, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) saying there is no evidence to support their use by the general population.

SAGE will provide the Cabinet with their latest advice on Thursday, before ministers decide whether to enforce mandatory wearing on face coverings in public.

The government is coming under mounting criticism over its failure to ensure NHS staff treating coronavirus patients have the protective equipment they need.

Local Government Minister Simon Clarke told ITV News the guidance around face masks "remains the same" until a "scientific steer" is given.

"We are awaiting a clear scientific steer from SAGE on this issue," he said.

"At the moment this isn't what is being recommended and therefore it isn't government policy, we're prioritising getting material to the frontline.

"If that advice changes then clearly that is something we will work to accommodate over the weeks ahead.

"Our priority will clearly remain making sure that the NHS and social care sectors have what they need first."

Number 10 confirmed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) would discuss the public use of face masks at its meeting on Tuesday.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and NHS trusts in England, has urged the Government to “fully assess” the impact any new advice could have on health service supplies.

In a statement on Monday, he said: “Fluid repellent masks for health and care staff are key to safety and to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

“Securing the supply of masks, when there is huge global demand, is crucial.

"This must be a key consideration for government.

“There needs to be clear evidence that wearing masks, along with other measures, will deliver significant enough benefits to take us out of lockdown to potentially jeopardise NHS mask supply.”

It comes as a group of medics called on people to make their own face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Masks4All suggested homemade masks could slow the spread of Covid-19

The campaign group was started in the Czech Republic, but now has a global following.

More than 100 UK medics have lent support to the campaign.

Katie Sanderson, who works as an acute medicine doctor at a London hospital, told ITV News the lack of personal protective equipment some hospitals are facing is a "huge worry" for many medical staff.

"More of us are going to die, we face the possibility of being infected with coronavirus at work, I think it's hugely worrying for healthcare staff treating patients without adequate protection."

The WHO said people who are not in health and care facilities should only wear masks if they are sick or caring for those who are ill.

Dr Helen Davison told the Daily Telegraph the group is “advocating the use of cloth masks as a precautionary principle” and that it had been inspired by action taken in other countries “that have introduced face masks at population level”.

Credit: PA Graphics

A shipment of 84 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) which was meant to arrive in the UK from Turkey on Sunday, has still not left the country.

Mr Clarke said on Tuesday that he understands the delay is down to an issue around export licences.

"Clearly there are issues with this consignment but we will get it and get it back to the UK as quickly as we can," he added.

"What I would say is we are not reliant on this one shipment, it's a substantial shipment but it represents far from the totality of what it is we are trying to achieve here."

The shipment contains 400,000 desperately needed surgical gowns.

The government said meanwhile that 140,000 gowns had arrived from Burma – but with the NHS using 150,000 a day, the demand on resources remains intense.

Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Rachel Reeves said the Government must "strain every sinew" to supply PPE and urged ministers to concentrate more on domestic manufacturers, rather than relying on imports.

WHO guidance issued earlier this month acknowledged that the virus could be passed on by people who are not yet symptomatic, but it said: “Current evidence suggests that most disease is transmitted by symptomatic, laboratory confirmed cases.

“There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses.”

It warned that the use of masks by the public can create a “false sense of security” and lead to people ignoring other protective measures, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing.

There are fears that if the public wear masks there will be less for NHS workers. Credit: PA

Masks can even be a source of infection when not used correctly, the WHO added.

Professor Babak Javid, consultant in infectious diseases at Cambridge University Hospitals, said that “population mask wearing should be an important part of the response to Covid”.

He added: “Once Covid cases are largely suppressed, we can stop wearing masks, their incremental gain will be low.

"But now, to really benefit from masks, the majority of us need to wear masks.”

The government is coming under mounting pressure over a lack of PPE. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, a survey has found that almost two-thirds of dental surgeons have experienced a shortage of PPE in the past 30 days.

Shortages of the essential kit and lack of access to coronavirus testing are the two main concerns of the medical professionals, said the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) after surveying nearly 200 dentists.

More than four in 10 said there was an inadequate supply of the protective equipment at their trusts.

One unnamed dental surgeon in England told the RCS a lack of PPE has prevented some urgent treatment centres running, which he feared could lead to dental infections worsening and an increase in disease and death.

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