Frontline NHS staff across South West hospitals 'frightened' over lack of protective equipment, says former health boss

One of the West Country's leading virologists says a growing number of doctors across the South West have contacted him to express their fears about the lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, an Exeter University lecturer who worked for Public Health England for 20 years, says they are being told not to speak out by their bosses.

He's been shocked at many of their accounts of life on the frontline of the NHS.

In some cases, he's been told, patients with coronavirus are having to die alone because there isn't enough PPE (personal protective equipment) for their relatives. Something which he says is an "outrage" and should not be allowed to happen.

Speaking to ITV News, Dr Pankhania, who lives in Bath, also said senior medics are worried about their own exposure to coronavirus.

I have had many doctors call me. They have just looked me up and said, I need to talk to somebody. And that says a lot. Why would these random people look me up on social media, and my university address, and call me? They're saying one thing - please help.

Dr Bharat Pankhania

Responding to these criticisms tonight Downing Street insisted the "full weight of government" was behind sourcing and delivering PPE.

Over the last 24 hours, more than 200,000 respiratory masks have been delivered along with 1 million surgical masks, a spokesperson said.

The deputy chief medical officer - Dr Jenny Harries - also revealed that the Army was now helping in the distribution of PPE to where it was needed.

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However, ITV News has also been contacted by a senior doctor in the South West who wishes to remain anonymous and has serious concerns about the lack of PPE. They revealed that many frontline NHS staff aren't even provided with basic uniforms, with many being left to buy them off Amazon.

According to them, a lack of washing facilities for staff in hospitals is compounding the problem.

There is a lack of basic scrubs. Many of my colleagues have had to buy scrubs out of their own pocket off Amazon.

Senior doctor in the South West
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The senior doctor has also raised concerns around staff who have come out of retirement to help.

Most of the staff over 60 will not be on the frontline right now, but if the frontline staff go off sick then there is no protection for those who have retired and returned, when they then go on the frontline.

Senior doctor in the South West

The doctor also told us how access to PPE at their hospital in the South West is only available for those performing AGP (Aerosol Generating Procedures), such as fitting a tube in someone's throat.

This means that if someone came in to see a consultant with a cough and fever (the key Covid-19 symptoms), they would have to treat them without full PPE.

They would then proceed to treat other patients throughout the day after potentially being exposed to the virus themselves.

Credit: Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash

The only protection available, according to this senior doctor, is a standard surgical mask, which has been shown to be ineffective, and an apron - with staff regularly running out of both.

The doctor we spoke to fears staff are regularly being exposed to the virus, but was denied the request to be fitted for PPE as they don't work on a ward treating patients with Covid-19.

Current guidelines state health workers coming within one metre of a patient with Covid-19 should have a visor, mask, apron and gloves.

If they're carrying out procedures where they could get coughed on, like fitting a ventilator, they should have a respirator mask and a long-sleeved gown.

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According to Dr Pankhania, and other senior consultants across the South West, many do not have access to that equipment.

They're saying they're very scared. They are meeting patients, they are treating patients, and they haven't got this equipment to protect themselves. They are very frightened and very concerned.

Dr Bharat Pankhania

Another consequence of the current shortage is that many South West hospitals will not allow coronavirus patients to have visitors, even when they're dying, because there isn't enough protection for their relatives.

Something that Dr Pankhania says he has never experienced in his whole career and it is an "outrage" that we are experiencing it now.

Never in my 25 years of training and then working as a consultant in health protection, communicable disease control, have we EVER sat around a table and envisaged that people will be allowed to die on their own. That has never crossed my path. This is tragic, this is really painful to take in.

Dr Bharat Pankhania
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The issue, according to Dr Pankhania, is down to the government's failure to stockpile.

Somewhere along the line, decisions have been made not to stockpile visors and high-quality PPE. As a result the coronavirus pandemic has arrived on our doorstep and we find ourselves under prepared.

Dr Bharat Pankhania
Credit: PA Images

Downing Street said today (March 31st) that the "full weight of Government" is working on sourcing and delivering PPE.

It said that in the last 24 hours it has delivered:

  • 2.5 million aprons

  • 218,000 respiratory masks

  • 870,000 eye protectors

  • 1 million surgical masks

  • 11 million gloves

The government also said it was relaxing import restrictions on products, and making it easier for new companies manufacturing PPE.

Talking this evening (March 31st) the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said: "The first thing to say is that the UK has always had sufficient stocks to date that it needs against its guidelines and those guidelines are amongst the best in the world."

Dr Harries added: "The distribution element has been a little bit tricky at times and we have now taken a whole strand of the logistics, including with the army's support actually, out so that we are developing a UK position on that stock and distribution flow.

"And the underlying critical point about this is that the PPE should go to match where the critical, clinical risk is."

On how workers feel, she added: "We are very attuned to this and what we've been doing over the last few days is reviewing our guidance to see if, although we're quite satisfied with the technical basis of it, if we can make some small tweaks if you like to ensure that people feel safer in what they are doing.

"And we're addressing that over the current period."