NHS workers are hiding masks and calling in sick because of fears over equipment shortages in the battle against coronavirus, doctors have claimed.
Hospital staff are taking the drastic measures amid a reported shortage of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to treat sufferers of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
The news comes as the head of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) revealed that one in four NHS doctors are off work sick or in isolation.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said that roughly 25% of the doctor workforce is off, either with coronavirus or because a family member or housemate is ill.
“At the moment, we think it’s more doctors self-isolating with family members, though there are some off sick themselves,” he said.
“This is really impacting a lot in emergency departments and London is in a much worse position than elsewhere at the moment, but it will come to other places. Birmingham is also struggling.”
Prof Goddard said hospital wards across England “are going from normal wards to Covid wards very quickly”.
Asked about the pressure on intensive care units, he said: “Some hospitals are really at the limit. Within London it’s very, very difficult at the moment, you can’t underestimate how difficult it is.”
He said it was unclear whether the 25% off work would be a “rolling number” or whether it could ease as testing of NHS staff increases and people come out of isolation.
“Of course the worry is we will lose more people to Covid-related illness,” he added.
A hospital consultant became the first frontline NHS worker to die from coronavirus at the weekend, amid reports the government was warned three years ago that the health service would struggle to cope with a pandemic.
On Sunday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said 170m masks, 42.8m gloves, 13.7m aprons, 182,000 gowns, almost 10m items of cleaning equipment and 2.3m pairs of eye protectors were being delivered to frontline staff.
He said: “Every single GP practice, dental practice and community pharmacy has had a PPE delivery. All care homes, hospices, and home care providers have, or will shortly, receive a delivery.”
However, one doctor told the Press Association news agency that staff are hiding equipment out of desperation.
An obstetrician at a hospital in London said protective gear is being kept under lock and key by senior staff.
“There is some, but now we’re in a situation where people are having to hide them and store them for their own staff,” the obstetrician, who chose to speak anonymously, said.
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She added: “There is not enough kit. PPE is locked away in our hospital and only one person has got the key because people are panicking.
“So, some people are going in and grabbing some of the stuff because they want to walk around with a mask.
“What people are doing is they are hiding them because they don’t want just anyone grabbing the kit, so the bottom line is there is not enough kit.”
She said their actions were “out of sheer desperation, there is just not enough”.
The obstetrician added: “Our bosses are having to store a certain number. We are working in a hospital where there are key workers – including orderlies, porters, healthcare assistant – they have a right to be protected too.
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“Our orderly was walking around the ward yesterday with a sleep mask over her face – an eye mask over her nose and mouth as a make-shift mask.
“They’ve said she doesn’t need a mask because she’s not in contact with COVID patients but so many patients are asymptomatic. We should be managing patients as though everybody has it.”
Another frontline NHS doctor, who also worked for the government in west Africa during the Ebola crisis, told PA some fellow workers are claiming to be sick as they fear the PPE provisions are inadequate.
“All my colleagues are quite nervous – some people are going off sick because they don’t feel safe,” the doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
“Others are seeking placement elsewhere so they are not frontline, again because of the lack of PPE.
“The closed WhatsApp groups are awash with fear, anger and confusion around the issues regarding PPE.”
A junior doctor at the Royal Bolton Hospital in Greater Manchester said PPE was the main concern for health workers.
He said: “I just think at the moment the main thing from a healthcare worker is our concerns about PPE.
“You wouldn’t send a soldier out without the necessary equipment so why are healthcare professionals not being provided the adequate PPE?”
Another junior doctor in Norfolk said: “There’s not enough, there’s nowhere near enough.
“There is such a shortage, so we feel like it’s inevitable we’re going to get sick. Infection control tells you one thing, the government are advising another thing, there’s so much conflicting advice.”
The World Health Organisation has warned that the “chronic” shortage of PPE is threatening “our collective ability to save lives”.
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On Friday, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “When health workers are at risk, we’re all at risk.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it has issued millions of pieces of equipment and set up a national helpline so those in need can ask for more.