Doctor calls on government to apologise for 'gross failings in PPE supply'

A doctor working on the NHS frontline in the fight against coronavirus has called on the government to "apologise" for what she says have been "gross failings in PPE supply".

Dr Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, told ITV News podcast Calling Peston how "hundreds of thousands of people" in health and social care are "quite literally risking their lives" by working with "inadequate" PPE.

Amid widespread criticism over the government's handling of PPE supply, Dr Clarke said not one minister has had the "decency and honesty and frankly the humanity" to apologise.

In the interview - of which a full version is available below - Dr Clarke said she would like the government "to say to frontline staff, ‘we are genuinely sorry from the bottom of our hearts that we have not got the PPE right'."

She said she's heard "appalling" stories of colleagues in social care being forced to use "bin bags and cagoules and make their own make-shift ad-hoc masks from things as absurd as sanitary towels, because they haven’t even received the right supplies of paper masks from the government."

"That’s absolutely shocking for us all," she added.

Dr Clarke, who works in both a hospice and her local hospital, said she was "shocked and astonished" last week to learn Public Health England (PHE) was "forced to downgrade quite drastically the levels of protection we should have to fit the resources available".

Many health and social workers do have PPE, including Dr Rachel, but many others do not. Credit: PA

Staff working with coronavirus patients "should all be wearing a full length surgical gown that pretty much covers every bit of their body", she said.

"But now we have guidance to, if necessary, use little skimpy plastic aprons instead because there aren’t enough of the gowns."

Some hospitals are "having to reuse gowns that shouldn’t be reused, that’s an infection risk", she added.

She acknowledged people are avoiding trying to blame the government at the moment, but said it is necessary to demand the right PPE.

"There’s a whole ocean of space between pointing the finger of blame for the sake of it and actually demanding that our government takes responsibility for the gross failings in PPE supply at the moment that are endangering the lives of staff," she said.

She said she "appreciates" the government can't "magic up" a new supply of PPE but said it could "take responsibility" and "acknowledge the failings".

Responding, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told ITV News the protection of frontline healthcare staff is the "absolute priority".

The spokesperson said: “We are working around the clock to ensure PPE is delivered as quickly as possible to those on the frontline of this global pandemic for as long as it is required.

“We have delivered nearly 1 billion items since the outbreak began and there is a 24 hour NHS-run helpline where NHS and social care workers can call to report shortages in supply.”

While Dr Clarke admits she's been "very fortunate" to have the "right" PPE at her hospital in accordance with PHE standards, she says that doesn't necessarily mean it's "optimal" PPE.

Listen to the full interview on Calling Peston here:

"Our national standards are actually significantly downgraded from WHO standards," she said.

"For example, according to the WHO [World Health Organization], everybody who is working within two metres of a patient should be wearing a full length surgical gown.

"The UK guidance is that the vast majority of people working with patients don’t need gowns, only the people who are really at increased risk need them."

Despite many health workers having what she described as "inadequate" PPE, she said staff would never compromise the care of their patients.

"Staff are really going the extra mile in the sense of working with PPE that we know sometimes is inadequate but we’re still using it because patients come first."

She said the idea of not being there for patients is "insufferable".

Meanwhile, the government said it is working "domestically and internationally to source as much PPE as we need".

A Downing Street spokesman said there were deliveries to 196 trusts and organisations on Thursday containing 12 million PPE items, including gloves, aprons, masks, FFP3 masks and gowns.