Getting vital personal protective equipment to frontline NHS staff is proving to be a “Herculean logistical effort”, the health secretary has admitted.
Matt Hancock insisted there are enough masks, gloves, aprons and hand sanitiser to go around as he defended the government’s record on protecting medics.
He told health workers they should be treating the items known as PPE like the “precious resource that it is”.
Ministers have been accused of being too slow to deliver the equipment, putting doctors at risk and meaning those treating patients with COVID-19 could pass on the virus.
Earlier this week, the British Medical Association told Sky News the shortage was “really worrying” and that only 50% of doctors surveyed in high-risk areas like intensive care units say they have adequate supplies of sealed masks.
A doctor who was diagnosed with coronavirus also died this week – several weeks after writing to the prime minister asking him “urgently” to boost PPE stocks.
Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, 52, called on the prime minister to ensure medics are protected because they have a “human right like others to live in this world disease-free with our family and children”.
Mr Hancock tried to assuage fears by saying at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Friday: “There’s enough PPE to go around, but only if it’s used in line with our guidance.
“We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource that it is.
“That means only using it when there’s a clinical need, and not using more than is needed.”
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He said 742 million pieces of PPE have been delivered so far during the outbreak, including 161 million masks, 127 million aprons, one million gowns, and 345 million pairs of gloves.
Mr Hancock continued: “This is a Herculean logistical effort. We’ve brought together the NHS, private industry and the Army, in fact, the armed forces, to create a giant PPE distribution network on an unprecedented scale.”
In order to ensure sufficient future supply, he is urging companies which can do so to “step up to the plate” and help with manufacturing.
For weeks the government has been promising medics would be protected, with Mr Hancock saying on 23 March he was “taking urgent action to ensure dedicated frontline NHS and social care staff… feel supported”.
Responding to his latest assurances, director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing Susan Master said it would only be impressive when nursing staff “stop contacting me to say what they need to use wasn’t available”.
“The safety of nurses and care staff must not be compromised,” she added.
“They are pretty clear about what they need to do to stay safe and they will be angered by any suggestion they cause shortages by misusing kit.”
Labour also said there was a “mismatch” between promises and the reality.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: “Staff have been raising the alarm over lack of PPE for weeks. We hope the government’s plans today deliver the adequate supplies of PPE our brave health care staff deserve.”
A senior doctor at a hospital trust that has dealt with hundreds of COVID-19 positive patients also told Sky News that the reassurances about PPE were “too little too late”.
“We all know colleagues who are sick and some who have died. Still we (rightly) head in each day and work really really hard.
“But it’s tough. As a consultant I have to look at my team each day and reassure, motivate and protect them.
“The constant changes in PPE policy weakens the scientific arguments and denials worry people.”
He added: “Nobody expected a pandemic on this scale and no one blames the government for not having warehouses full of PPE for a once in a lifetime eventuality – but we expect a bit of candour and honestly.
“Staff are scared. We all know colleagues who are sick and some who have died. Still we (rightly) head in each day and work really really hard. But it’s tough.
“Staff are scared to speak out, scared to work, and ashamed of being unwell as they feel they’re letting their patients and colleagues down.”
Turkey has sent some PPE to the UK as a goodwill gesture – including 100,000 surgical masks and 100,000 hazmat suits.