An acute shortage of protective equipment for healthcare workers dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak in Northern Ireland has been revealed in a leaked document that shows suppliers are warning some gear cannot be delivered until the summer.
Internal stock checks issued on Wednesday by the region’s health service listed item after item of personal protective equipment (PPE) as “out of stock”, including respirator masks, eye protection and basic hygiene products.
What do the restrictions involve?
People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.
Of the 33 Covid-19 “affected products” listed on the leaked Northern Ireland document, 32 items were marked “out of stock”, with one kind of protective clothing marked “critically low in stock”. The documents suggest officials have released alternative products in response to the shortages from emergency stockpiles.
The leak comes as authorities in both Wales and Scotland also scramble to release PPE from emergency stockpiles and announced measures to distribute supplies to frontline NHS and social care staff.
Libby Nolan, a senior nurse currently assigned to an intensive treatment unit (ITU) in south Wales, told the Guardian that some healthcare workers have begun preparing letters to be used in case they die, putting into writing how they were told to work without adequate PPE. She said they were “thinking ahead for insurance and litigation purposes” to ensure their families receive sufficient compensation.
She said PPE shortages remained at the end of last week, including goggles and FFP3 respirator masks, affecting staff safety, adding: “You just wouldn’t send firemen into a burning fire without apparatus, would you?”
On Friday, the British Medical Council in Wales said that while the Welsh government has advised there were sufficient PPE stocks, the reality was that “doctors on the frontline are experiencing shortages and many are extremely anxious over the adequacy of the equipment”.
The Northern Ireland document leaked to the Guardian, titled “Covid-19 product shortages”, suggests commercial suppliers are struggling to meet the rise in demand for PPE as the NHS in Northern Ireland, known as Health and Social Care (HSC), responds to rising numbers of Covid-19 patients.
According to the document, one supplier is unable to provide certain kinds of visors and face masks “until July 2020”, while the major industrial supplies conglomerate 3M “cannot give [HSC] any certainty over future supply” of a particular line of FFP3 respirator mask.
Other 3M respirator masks are described as becoming “available soon” or “available from April 2020”. The stock checks show antibacterial wipes were also listed as out of stock.
Details of the shortages are likely to renew concerns about PPE supplies raised by healthcare workers, professional bodies and hospital chiefs across the UK in recent days.
In Northern Ireland on Friday, Stormont’s finance minister, Conor Murphy, announced a joint-deal with the Irish government for a “significant order” of PPE from China.
Murphy said: “We want to be sure that if the crisis that is coming our way becomes more severe in Britain and those supply lines across the Irish Sea dry up, then we want our own supply chain here.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said the document seen by the Guardian was “regularly updated” and only “provides a snapshot of supply arrangements in place at particular junctures.” He said the document does not “in any way suggest” there are issues with the region’s emergency stockpile, and highlighted the release last week of 30% of this pandemic stockpile.
“At present, we have enough PPE to keep staff safe,” the spokesperson said, adding the department “will continue to pursue every feasible supply route, both local and international, to enhance our supplies”.
Over the past week, PPE shortages have emerged as a major issue in the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Health authorities in England sought to reassure healthcare workers over the weekend, promising over 170m respirator masks, surgical masks and other PPE equipment to NHS services across the country.
In recent days the Guardian has continued to receive messages from frontline healthcare workers from around the UK expressing concern about the adequacy and availability of PPE.
A senior doctor at a hospital in the West Midlands experiencing high numbers of Covid-19 patients
said that on wards where there were suspected and confirmed coronavirus patients: “we have cleaners, healthcare assistants, nurses, and they’re just using aprons that you use to serve lunches and dinners, because we’ve run out of the full protective gowns.”
“There’s scarce amounts of PPE,’’ she said. “We don’t have the FFP3 masks, we’re just using surgical masks.”
She added that colleagues were nervous about speaking out about PPE because talking to the media is frowned upon. “The only reason I’m doing it is because it gets to a point where staff are coming in and putting themselves at risk and we don’t have the right equipment to do the right job, so I think someone has to say something.”