Frontline NHS workers advised to reuse gowns ahead of expected weekend shortage

17 April 2020, 20:55

NHS staff could 'run out' of protective gowns this weekend
NHS staff could 'run out' of protective gowns this weekend. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Doctors and nurses could have to work without full-length gowns and reuse PPE when treating coronavirus patients ahead of an expected weekend shortage.

Department of Health officials and Public Health England (PHE) issued the advice to doctors and nurses because of a worldwide shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has come under fire for an "ongoing failure" regarding the supply of personal protective equipment, with some frontline staff saying they feel unsafe.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted he would "love to be able to wave a magic wand" to increase PPE supplies, but global demand means "we are tight on gowns."

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth called on ministers to "urgently" fix the problem and to "explain how they will fix" the shortage.

He tweeted: "Hospitals set to 'run out' of gowns by Monday. Week after week we hear of problems in PPE getting to the frontline despite what ministers tell us at Downing Street press conferences.

"This ongoing failure needs fixing and ministers must explain how they will fix it urgently."

At least 50 NHS workers have now died after contracting coronavirus.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Hancock told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee the acquisition of gowns was challenging as they are now a "precious resource" because of worldwide demand.

"We are tight on gowns, that is the pressure point at the moment. We have another 55,000 gowns arriving today and we're working on the acquisition internationally of more gowns, but it is a challenge," the health secretary said.

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He added: "It is a big challenge delivering against new guidance and we're doing everything we possibly can."

When pressed on whether hospitals that urgently need PPE would receive supplies this weekend, the 41-year-old replied: "Well that is exactly what we are aiming to do."

The Department of Health has been approached for comment.

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Some NHS bosses are now preparing to ask workers to wear plastic aprons instead when gowns run out or to reuse single-use PPE.

It is a significant U-turn on previous PHE guidelines that said long-sleeved disposable fluid repellent gowns should be worn when treating Covid-19 patients.

The new measures say staff should wear "disposable, non-fluid repellent gowns or coveralls" or "washable surgical gowns", with aprons, and to wash their forearms afterwards.

Reusing PPE "should be implemented until confirmation of adequate re-supply is in place," the advice suggested.

A global PPE shortage means UK hospital staff could have to reuse the equipment
A global PPE shortage means UK hospital staff could have to reuse the equipment. Picture: PA

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said some trusts could run out of gowns this weekend despite "carefully managing" remaining stock and collaborating with neighbouring health organisations where possible.

"We all hope that this temporary disruption to supply will be short-lived and that the gowns that were ordered a long time ago, and should have already arrived, start arriving consistently and reliably rather than in the current fits and starts," she added.

Dr Rob Harwood, consultants committee chairman at the British Medical Association, said using aprons "directly contravenes" previous guidance that is in place "to help keep healthcare workers and their patients out of harm's way."

"If it's being proposed that staff reuse equipment, this must be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence - rather than availability - and it absolutely cannot compromise the protection of healthcare workers," he added.

Dr Harwood warned that more healthcare workers could die while trying to save others under the new advice.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "New clinical advice has been issued today to make sure that if there are shortages in one area, frontline staff know what PPE to wear instead to minimise risk."

It comes as the health secretary encouraged more UK companies to come forward and volunteer to manufacture PPE domestically.

An NHS trust chief in southern England asked for the help of British fashion company Burberry due to fears of a shortage.

The man, who wished to remain anonymous, described Mr Hancock's denial of a PPE shortage across the UK as a "fantasy."

Meanwhile, a leading physician today warned the UK is facing "further waves" of coronavirus and will probably have the highest death rate in Europe, or possibly the world, because the government was "too slow" to act.

Professor Anthony Costello, of University College London's Institute for Global Health, said the "harsh reality" is that "we were too slow with a number of things" and deaths could reach to 40,000.