Hospices could run out of essential personal protective equipment “within days” because providers of end of life care are being denied access to government supplies of PPE.
ITV News has learned deliveries of PPE to hospices in England have all but stopped as they struggle to access affordable supplies.
Hospices are being quoted up to twenty six times more for surgical masks than NHS suppliers, leaving them unable to place orders and quickly running out.
The PPE crisis comes as the number of patients being cared for by hospices trebled in April as a result of coronavirus.
ITV News has found the sector is now caring for 24,000 people a day - three times more than the same period last year.
“Hospices will run out of this within days”, said Tracey Bleakley, CEO of Hospice UK.
“They’re already having to ration supplies, which means we’re putting out staff at risk, and it also means we’re putting people in the community at risk.
“It’s crucial that we eat these PPE through, we know it’s there, we know the decision has been made, but there’s the bureaucratic problem, we can’t seem to get past.”
When asked about the issue at the government's daily coronavirus press conference, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government had been guided by the NHS in where the priorities would be in the supply of PPE.
"We said that the priority would be on the frontline in the NHS and care homes, but obviously we want to make sure that we've got enough PPE."
He said capacity was being ramped up to make sure "anyone that may need it" can get PPE, "and obviously hospices are very important there as well".
The majority of hospices in England usually get PPE from NHS supply chains, but they were removed in March to prioritise hospitals as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
That forced end of life care providers to appeal to schools, tattoo parlours and local organisations for donations of PPE, as we revealed last month.
Some began purchasing their own PPE from private suppliers, but hospices have found it increasingly difficult in recent weeks afford equipment as a result of huge price inflation, with quotes for surgical masks twenty times higher than the price paid for by NHS hospitals.
Hospices have been quoted as much as £480 for a box of surgical face masks - the same box cost the NHS £18.
For gloves, a pack of 100 gloves from one supplier is £22.50 for the NHS, but £120 for Hospices looking to buy.
And for higher-spec respiratory masks, the cost to the NHS is £91.70 a box, but £696.50 for hospices. Some items are almost 30 times more expensive that they should be.
Hospices had been hoping to be re-admitted on to the NHS supply chain, which is managed by Supply Chain Coordination Limited (SCCL) - a company owned by the government.
ITV News has seen emails in which members of SCCL had reassured hospices they would be allowed access to their supplies, but almost a week later they still being frozen out.
Heidi Travis, CEO of Sue Ryder which runs seven hospices in the UK, says the situation has left her staff on the brink of running out essential protective equipment.
“On Friday we thought we had enough supplies, but over the course of the weekend once hospice in particular were dealing with more covid cases than they anticipated,” she said.
“By Monday we were down to having just eleven masks, that’s as close as running out as you’re going to get because we usually use more than 100 masks a day.
“We’re working incredibly hard to move stock around, but that is clearly not acceptable.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government is "working urgently" to deliver PPE to hospices so they can "provide quality, compassionate care to people in last weeks of their lives".
The spokesperson added: "We have created a giant PPE distribution network almost from scratch and we are working around the clock to ensure PPE is delivered as quickly as possible to those on the frontline during this global pandemic for as long as it is required."
One carer told ITV News she worries about the situation with PPE, not just because of the risk to her own health, but because of the barrier it puts between her and the patients.
Laura Taylor, a ward sister said: "At the beginning when we started using PPE, I’ll be honest with you, every single day I went home and cried because I found it a really big challenge.
"Patients found it particularly hard some patients couldn’t understand and just wanted to see what we looked like under this mask."
She added: "I think anyone would be telling fibs if they said they weren’t scared."
But coronavirus isn't just worrying carers at hospices, the patients are scared too.
Liz Gilbert, 81, who has terminal cancer, said the thing that worries her more than anything is dying alone.
She told ITV News: "To know that you’re going to die alone, that’s the worst part about it. I know you’ll have a nurse - it’s not quite the same as your own family.
"I think that plays on my mind more than anything."
In Wales and Scotland hospices can access PPE through their own national health services.