Medics on Front Line of U.K. Virus Battle Still Fear for Safety
A member of medical staff secures his face mask inside a operating theater at a hospital in Birmingham, U.K. (Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg)

Medics on Front Line of U.K. Virus Battle Still Fear for Safety

(Bloomberg) --

While U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was battling coronavirus in an intensive care unit in early April, Nathan Hudson-Peacock was returning to work as a junior doctor at another ICU in London after two weeks isolating at home.

Hudson-Peacock, 27, had a lingering cough and a feeling of anxiety. Despite having all the Covid-19 symptoms, staff at the hospital weren’t being tested. He couldn’t say for sure whether he was a risk to colleagues and patients. Since the lockdown began a month ago, the number of beds on his ward have almost doubled to 60 and he constantly worries about shortages of sedatives and painkillers needed to treat those on ventilators.

Hudson-Peacock’s worries about running out of equipment and supplies are being echoed across the National Health Service. A nurse at the Western Health and Social Care Trust in the north of Ireland now dreads going to a once-loved job because of fears of catching the virus or passing it on to family or patients. A community mental health nurse in south west England, who regularly administers injections, said the team’s first shipment of PPE only arrived on April 10.

Ministers were warned last year that a pandemic could cost more than 2.35 trillion pounds ($2.9 trillion) and that the government should stockpile so-called personal protective equipment, establish a system for tracing infections and figure out how to repatriate Britons stranded abroad, the Guardian newspaper reported Friday. Failure to source extra gowns, visors and surgical masks has led to frantic efforts to buy additional gear from countries including Turkey and Myanmar.

150,000 Cases

More than 20,000 people have died in hospitals, including 413 on Saturday, since the pandemic hit Britain. Total cases have now surpassed 150,000 and more than 80 health workers have perished from the virus.

The government says it delivered more than a billion pieces of PPE across the U.K. from Feb. 25 through April 18, a number that also includes body bags, soap, clinical waste containers, cleaning equipment and detergent. Details on how quickly the disposable equipment is being used remains sketchy, leaving the numbers lacking context. While the assignments have included about 1.2 million gowns, the BBC reported, about 80,000 a day are used in England alone, according to representative body NHS Providers.

“To help us further in delivering vital PPE both when and where it is needed, we are piloting a new model focused solely on providing PPE products to health care providers and NHS trusts,” the Department of Health and Social Care said in an email. “We are working around the clock to ensure PPE is delivered as quickly as possible to those on the frontline.”

An online portal intended for community, primary and social care providers seeking protective gear was due to launch in April, but has been delayed, trade publication HSJ reported last week. Online auction company EBay Inc. built the site, which was set to open the week of April 6, the report said. The system is still being tested and U.K. officials deny it has been delayed.

PPE Waste

This account is based on interviews with nurses, doctors and carers on the frontline many of whom asked not to be identified discussing their experiences or to limit the information being published about them.

The community mental health nurse said the clinic where she works has PPE waste all over the floor because the bins haven’t been emptied, raising fears of contamination. A carer in the north of Ireland expressed worry about the lack of protective gear they’ve been offered given they travel from home to home treating vulnerable people. A lack of coordination at local authorities is contributing the problem, said an executive at a care-home provider in the north of England, adding that any equipment they get from the state is viewed as a bonus.

Government officials are confident the peak of the virus has passed and the National Health Service is starting to think about returning to normal service. However, without enough PPE, the health care system risks being overwhelmed by any second wave of cases and the economy won’t be able to fully reopen.

There are signs the situation is improving in hospitals. “Obviously the government has prioritized the distribution to hospitals. That’s where the sickest patients are. So they’ve received more PPE,” said Dr Richard Vautrey, Chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee. “Nevertheless, many hospitals have struggled to gain necessary PPE as well, such as gowns when they run out.”

Care Homes Hotspot

Still, it’s nursing and care homes that are emerging as one of the hotspots for the virus, a situation that’s being replicated across Europe. Accentuating the problem with PPE is the lack of testing, which leads workers to use the equipment with patients who may or may not be infected. The government reported Sunday that it carried out about 29,000 daily tests, far below the target of 100,000 planned for this week. Key workers, including medics, are now being given the option of home tests or drive-through testing centers, but they’ve been booked out within minutes.

British firms are also trying to fill the gap when it comes to equipment. Luxury fashion group Burberry Group Plc has transformed its trench coat factory in the north of England to produce gear for those working on the frontline and has donated more than 100,000 items of PPE to medics and care workers so far.

Hudson-Peacock, the London-based doctor, is working with other medics to collect donations of equipment, including hundreds of masks, goggles and visors from the public. “It’s taking a lot of time for sure, but we’ve been blown away by the generosity of the public,” he said, asking that the hospital where he works not be identified. “Anything is better than nothing.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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