Nurses told to refuse to treat coronavirus patients unless they are given adequate PPE

12 April 2020, 09:51

Nurses have been urged to not treat infected patients if they have not been given appropriate PPE
Nurses have been urged to not treat infected patients if they have not been given appropriate PPE. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Royal College of Nursing has urged its members to refuse to treat coronavirus patients as a "last resort" if they have not been given adequate PPE.

The union piled pressure on ministers as the UK's coronavirus death toll edged closer to the 10,000-mark on Saturday.

An RCN spokesman stressed that nurses should only refuse to work if they "have exhausted all other measures to reduce the risk" of catching Covid-19.

Frontline healthcare workers have expressed their concern at not having sufficient levels of personal protective equipment while battling against the virus.

On Saturday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock paid tribute to 19 NHS staff who have died after testing positive for the disease.

Among those were Sara Trollope, a matron for older adult mental health services in Hillingdon, west London, and Julie Omar, 52, a trauma and orthopaedics nurse at Redditch's Alexandra Hospital, in Worcestershire, who died at home while self-isolating with symptoms.

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The RCN's latest guidance says that although it "will go against every instinct," nurses should decline to work if they feel they are not safe.

"For nursing staff, this will go against every instinct. But their safety must not be compromised," the spokesman said.

Legal assistance would be provided by the union to those making an "enormously difficult decision" and warned them that they could face criminal prosecution for corporate manslaughter in "very rare" cases for walking away.

It issued a seven-point safety plan, with step six saying: "Ultimately, if you have exhausted all other measures to reduce the risk and you have not been given appropriate PPE in line with the UK Infection Prevention and Control guidance, you are entitled to refuse to work.

"This will be a last resort and the RCN recognises what a difficult step this would be for nursing staff."

NHS workers have been advised to keep written justifications of their decisions if they withdraw care and added they could face attempts to sack them or claims of clinical negligence.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma told Sky News that health workers should not be put in such a position.

"It is absolutely right that no medical professional should be placed in a position where they have to make that choice," he said.

"That for me is self-evident. That is why we are making sure we get the equipment to the front line."

The 52-year-old said PPE demand was well beyond anything like what it would be outside of a pandemic and that there was a "unified effort" to deliver more supplies.

He added: "In a normal circumstance, you would have us providing PPE to about 233 hospital trusts across the country.

"We are not talking about supplying 58,000 NHS and social care settings.

"That is a huge increase and on top of that, there is a huge global demand for PPE and that does put a squeeze on supply."

Mr Sharma then refused to apologise specifically over the supply of PPE, saying that he was "sorry for the loss of any life during this pandemic".

"It is our job to make sure we get that health care equipment, that PPE, out to them," he told the broadcaster.

"Right now, your viewers will be asking does the government have a plan to get this PPE out to the front line and the answer is, yes we do have a plan.

"We are putting that in place, with millions of pieces of PPE kit going out to the front line. Of course, we need to be doing even more."

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