Doctors and patients will die without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) across the NHS, the British Medical Association (BMA) has warned.
It said doctors are risking serious illness and death due to a lack of stock, and it warned many more could go off sick unless immediate steps are taken.
The BMA said there is “growing evidence that thousands of GPs and hospital staff are still not being provided with the kit they need to properly protect themselves and their patients”, despite Government assurances.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said millions of pieces of PPE have been sent out in recent days and a hotline has been set up so staff can report where there are shortages.
The Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries also insisted on Wednesday there is enough PPE available for all.
We are ‘inundated with concerns’ from our members about a lack of PPE or inadequate equipment – often a paper mask no eye protection and a plastic apron instead of a proper gown @CNagpaul tells @bbc5live
— The BMA (@TheBMA) March 24, 2020
But the BMA said it has heard accounts of no stock, very small amounts of PPE, rationing and kit that does not offer sufficient protection.
And the charity Sue Ryder has sent out an urgent plea for protective gear for its palliative care teams as they are now caring for patients with confirmed Covid-19.
One doctor told the BMA: “Coughed on by Covid patients all day today. No visors available… tomorrow I’m borrowing my nine-year-old’s safety specs she got in a science party bag. I wish this was actually a joke.”
Another said: “We have no testing or PPE on mental health units, and the environment was never designed to contain an epidemic.
“Given that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, within weeks 100% of patients and staff will be infected, and it will be just pot luck who survives.”
Under NHS guidance issued on Friday, any healthcare worker within a metre of a patient with possible or confirmed Covid-19 should wear a fluid repellent face mask, apron, gloves and eye protection if there is a risk of splashing.
For those who are at risk due to “aerosol generating procedures”, such as putting patients on ventilators, suctioning and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), they should wear an FFP3 respirator, a long-sleeved disposable gown, gloves and eye protection such as disposable goggles or full-face visor.
But the BMA said this did not meet recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
BMA council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “A construction worker wouldn’t be allowed to work without a hard hat and proper boots.
“Even a bee-keeper wouldn’t inspect a hive without proper protective clothing.
“And yet this Government expects NHS staff to put themselves at risk of serious illness, or even death, by treating highly infectious Covid-19 patients without wearing proper protection. This is totally unacceptable.
“We are told that lorries are shipping hundreds of boxes of supplies of PPE to GPs and to hospitals, but that isn’t the reality for thousands of our members.
“The type of PPE being supplied is not in keeping with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations.
“GPs in many parts of England have been told to go and buy their own stocks, only to find none is available.
“In Cumbria, GP practice staff went to Wickes to try and secure masks.”
One hospital doctor told the BMA they are not sure they can carry on.
They said: “We are being asked to risk our lives and our loved ones’ lives in flimsy paper masks and plastic aprons. I don’t know if I can do it. I just don’t know if I can.
“I don’t think it is fair to expect this of us. I am terrified. How can this risk to practitioners, other patients, practitioners’ families be justified?
“My husband is not a medic and I cry every day thinking I am going to infect him.”
The doctors contacted the union between March 19 and 23.
Dr Nagpaul said there are limits to the risks that doctors should expose themselves to.
“If adequate protective wear isn’t available, a doctor in hospital has every right to ask to be moved to a low risk area or to provide patient care that doesn’t expose them to becoming infected with Covid-19,” he said.
“For GPs with patients who still need face to face care, again they need to think carefully about the level of risk they are exposing themselves and other patients to if they give that care without protection.
“They risk making themselves ill and infecting other vulnerable patients and GPs should not have to make that choice because they don’t have the masks, gloves and gowns they should have.”
Dr Nagpaul said it is time for the Government to be “transparent about the level of supplies we really have”.
He added: “We know hundreds, if not thousands, of doctors and front-line staff are risking their health and lives every hour of every day caring for Covid-19 patients and they should not have to do so without the right protection.
“For their sakes and for the sake of the population at large, it has to stop. Every healthcare worker in every hospital or every GP surgery must have the PPE they desperately need and have it today.”
Heidi Travis, chief executive at Sue Ryder, said: “For Sue Ryder’s doctors and nurses, access to significant amounts of additional personal protective equipment is now critical.
“As a result of Covid-19 we are expecting an increase in people needing end-of-life care in the coming weeks and months.
“The NHS is asking Sue Ryder to plan to support more patients and yet our medical teams are already providing palliative care for patients with Coronavirus symptoms with only enough Personal Protective Equipment for a matter of days.
“This means that Sue Ryder will soon be unable to protect our doctors and nurses from contracting the virus.”
During a Mumsnet webinar on Wednesday, Dr Harries said there is enough kit available to go around the country.
She added: “I do know there were a few distribution problems at the start because we have never had to deal with this sort of demand in our health service before, but we have drafted in the Army to help distribute and I know that all hospitals have had new stocks going into them this week, including through the night to make sure they reach the front line.”
Dr Harries also said the masks used in the UK are of a higher specification than those recommended by WHO.
On Tuesday, chairman of the Doctors’ Association UK, Dr Rinesh Parmar, claimed medics will be forced to leave the profession over a lack of protective equipment available to safely treat patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We are working around the clock to give the NHS and the wider social care sector the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.
“Over the last two days, more than 15 million face masks have been delivered to the frontline and yesterday’s deliveries included 24.6 million gloves and 1.9 million eye protectors.
”The full weight of the Government is behind this effort and we are working closely with industry, social care providers, the NHS, and the army so all our NHS and care staff have the protection they deserve.”