Nurses in Northern Ireland will not be able to legally treat patients in intensive care with coronavirus unless they have the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), the Royal College of Nurses has warned.
Pat Cullen, director of Royal College of Nursing NI, told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show that she has written to the Health and Safety Executive in Northern Ireland (HSENI) stating that under the nurses code of conduct and health and safety legislation nurses cannot treat patients if they are not sufficiently protected from the virus.
A HSENI spokesperson said: “HSENI has been contacted by RCN and we are currently considering the concerns which have been raised.”
Ms Cullen said: "Nurses work to a code of conduct in relation to their registration and under health and safety legislation in NI, it is abundantly clear that we cannot, as registered nurses, do anything that will cause unnecessary harm to a patient.
"By not having the required PPE in line with the guidance, it will absolutely cause unnecessary harm to a patient should nurses not have the appropriate PPE. There is no argument here, if nurses don't have the PPE they will not be in a position to treat those patients."
Ms Cullen said that she has also sent letters to the first minister, the deputy first minister and the health minister to express her concerns.
She added that the number of calls she is receiving from nurses who are concerned for their safety, and that of their patients, was "heartbreaking."
"They (nurses) are asking me for reassurance that they won't be put in that situation," she said.
"That is the position we are in. I am not pointing the finger here at anyone. It would do good for some people to come and listen to those calls that we receive from people on the front line and hear their fears, their anxieties and their concerns."
Ms Cullen stressed that at the moment there is a supply of PPE for nurses but that the concern is that this will run out when the NHS is facing an expected surge of coronavirus patients next week.
She said the current supply was "ad hoc" in places.
Asked what she wanted to hear from the Department of Health, Ms Cullen replied: "Come out and say we will always have the right level of PPE for you every single shift that you do."
Asked what would happen if nurses were not given the appropriate PPE in the future, she said: "They would be putting their patients at risk and they would be putting themselves at risk and ultimately then those people in the community that they would come in contact with. "
Ms Cullen, who herself is a nurse, said that some colleagues have been told they only have nine days supply of PPE.
Ms Cullen said she was seeking legal advice on behalf of RCN members, which she expects to receive later on Friday.
"It is very clear nurses cannot practice outside their code of conduct or the health and safety legislation in Northern Ireland," she added.
Posting on Twitter following the interview, Ms Cullen clarified that nurses have never said they would "refuse" to provide care to Covid-19 patients.
She added: "They never ‘refuse’ to care for their patients even at the time of industrial action, but it’s factual they need protective equipment to care for their patients. Nurses safety and protection is important."
In a statement on Thursday Health Minister Robin Swanned acknowledged frustration on PPE issues.
He said: “Updated UK-wide NHS guidance on PPE use has been issued. This guidance will inform PPE use across our system and help us to prioritise distribution.
“I fully understand that staff on the frontline need reassurance. I believe the updated guidance and securing greater quantities of PPE for Northern Ireland will both play a part in allaying concerns.
“I want to make absolutely clear that the PPE guidance is about ensuring staff have the appropriate level of protection for the circumstances they are working in – it is absolutely not, nor will it ever be, about seeking to restrict the use of equipment.”
Finance Minister Conor Murphy said last week that Northern Ireland put in a joint order with the Republic of Ireland to buy PPE supplies from China.
The department issued a statement on Friday saying: "In the last couple of weeks the Finance Minister has been assisting efforts to procure PPE and other supplies with both the Irish and British governments.
"There is global demand for all these goods and equipment and the scale of the pandemic we face means this will necessitate multiple orders from a range of suppliers at home and overseas.
"We are sourcing the market for supplies locally, nationally and internationally in places including China. The task has become even more challenging with the US and India entering the market.
"We must all protect our frontline workers and the Executive will be updated on the latest position on PPE later today."