The UK parliament reopened on Tuesday morning amidst mounting criticism of the government over a shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.
Stockpiles were low even before the COVID-19 pandemic but the virus has further depleted stocks.
This is likely to be at the centre of debate this week in the Commons which most MPs will be attending remotely.
Indeed, a hybrid parliament will be sitting this Tuesday with 120 out of 650 MPs taking part.
Their questions will be relayed via the videoconference application Zoom. A maximum of 50 will physically retake their seats in the Commons chamber but at a safe distance from each other.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle insisted most MPs should stay at home and he has made sure that spaces where members can sit are clearly marked out with tape.
He told BBC Radio 4 “there will be no advantage” for those in the chamber over those attending remotely.
‘No magic wand’
According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the PPE pressure point now is on gowns. An extra 140,000 have been received recently but that hardly seems enough as the NHS (National Health Service) goes through 150,000 a day.
The government has promised there are more to come. But a shipment of 400,000 gowns failed to materialise over the weekend and the Health Secretary said there was no way for him to know when the PPE stocks would be replenished.
“I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and have PPE fall from the sky in large quantities and be able to answer your question about when or when shortages will be resolved. But given we have a global situation in which there is less PPE in the world than the world needs,” Hancock told a parliamentary select committee on Friday.
In a survey of 6000 medical professionals, the British Medical Association found that “half of the doctors working in high-risk environments said there were shortages or no supply at all of adequate face masks, while 65% said they did not have access to eye protection. And alarmingly over half said they felt under pressure to work despite not having adequate PPE”.
“We are weeks into the most serious health crisis this country has faced in modern times and doctors are telling us they don’t have any or don’t have enough protective equipment. Until now, we have been hearing anecdotal stories about shortages or a lack of PPE, this survey confirms the extent of this failure”, said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the council of BMA.
Some doctors in Britain like others in the European Union are relying on donations, hand-made masks and goggles designed for school science projects, according to Doctors Association UK.
“We’re on track to having one of the highest mortality rates of health care workers, due to Covid, in the world. This is not okay, the government must protect its health care workers” said Dr Meenal Viz, a Junior Clinical Fellow with the NHS who staged a one-woman protest against the lack of PPE in front of Downing Street on Sunday.
Health experts have also criticised the UK for waiting too long before ordering a lockdown compared to other European countries. Restrictions on daily life were imposed from the 23 of March and were recently extended for at least three more weeks. So far the UK.has 115,317 people infected with the virus, with 15,498 deaths, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.