Coronavirus: Government accused of blindsiding NHS trusts with new face mask rules

6 June 2020, 11:50 | Updated: 6 June 2020, 14:40

The government has been accused of placing hospitals in an "incredibly challenging situation" by failing to consult NHS trusts on new rules requiring outpatients, visitors and staff to wear face coverings.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock strengthened the government's masks policy at Friday's coronavirus briefing, announcing the changes will come into force on 15 June.

Although hospitals have more than a week to prepare, Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, condemned the government for not consulting with trusts beforehand.

She told Sky News: "What they have been asked to do is make sure that more than 800,000 staff are able to access type-one or type-two masks on a daily basis, without any time really to put that in place and without any sense that we know the supply of masks will actually be there.

"The government has done another one of its 'announce it before actually consulting with those who are affected'.

"That's really difficult when you are a hospital chief executive working on the front line, and don't know week-on-week what announcements are going to come out from the government."

She added: "I think that they've been put in an incredibly challenging situation."

Demand for face masks has increased in recent weeks, as advice on whether the public should wear them changes.

The government long suggested that they serve little use in stopping the transmission of COVID-19, but they are now mandatory on public transport and encouraged in situations where social distancing is not possible.

Ms Cordery said it would be a "major logistical challenge" for hospitals to ensure they have enough supply to meet the government's new demands.

"They're going to have to negotiate with their logistical teams, the national supply chain that ensures PPE (personal protective equipment) gets to the front line, and make sure staff know how to use the masks.

"It's quite a big ask. Hospital trusts are in the middle of a major operational crisis - dealing with the pandemic, which is still a major challenge, and trying to restart usual operations and procedures across the NHS.

"Easing visiting restrictions is another major logistical challenge - to keep patients, staff and the public safe, social distancing has to be in place."

Ms Cordery also raised concerns about the "longer-term" supply of masks and other PPE, which has remained in high demand across the world.

She called on the government to offer "complete transparency" about stock, saying: "Every hospital trust can then be clear on whether it can get its hands on what it needs."

The British Medical Association echoed Ms Cordery's criticism, warning there was "little detail" on how the new policy would be implemented, where the masks would come from, or how outpatients and visitors would receive them.

Consultants committee chair Dr Rob Harwood said: "Given the lack of PPE supplies throughout the pandemic, it is absolutely crucial that the government ensures there are enough supplies of face masks for staff, and adequate provision of face coverings for outpatients and the public by the 15 June."

The Department of Health and Social Care said "further guidance for hospitals will be published next week to allow hospitals to get stocks and plans in place, and the guidance will be kept under review."

The government has not been alone in changing tack on face coverings, with the World Health Organisation also recommending they be used where social distancing is not possible.

The health body had previously said there was no evidence face masks worked, but now says new observations suggest they can help cut transmission of the virus. It stresses hand washing, social distancing and other measures remain important.