Failure to provide frontline medical staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic could amount to a criminal offence, a solicitor has warned.
Ciaran Moynagh of Phoenix Law said health workers or their families could take legal action if they become ill or a loved one dies from contracting the virus through their work.
He was speaking after it emerged that GPs may be forced to withdraw services due to a lack of safety equipment.
The chairs of the north and west GP federations have written to the Department of Health saying there is a shortage of PPE, particularly masks and aprons.
The federations, representing 40 practices and over 220,000 patients, said the lack of PPE was putting both healthcare staff and patients at risk.
In the letter, they warned that they might be forced to withdraw services.
Dr George O'Neill, chair of the west Belfast GP Federation, said doctors and practice nurses are anxious that PPE is not being distributed quickly enough. As a result, he said, they are fearful for their own wellbeing and that of their families.
The federations wrote to the Department of Health last Wednesday, April 8, expressing their concerns, but deliveries had still not arrived by Saturday.
GPs in counties Fermanagh and Londonderry have also warned about the lack of PPE.
Dr O'Neill said while he recognised there was a global shortage of PPE, he believes Stormont should appoint someone who would be responsible to oversee the delivery of equipment.
"I am not looking to allocate blame but what we want is a solution," he said.
"My suggestion would be to have someone who takes total charge of the distribution of PPE.
"This is crucially important as I do not want any colleagues getting sick or dying. When you work in the health service you are there to save lives, not to put your life at risk."
Mr Moynagh told the Belfast Telegraph that the Department of Health owes a duty of care to all healthcare professionals in their employment.
"This includes providing appropriate equipment to be able to carry out their critical roles," he added.
The Belfast solicitor, who has been approached by medics to make wills following the uncertainty over PPE, said a failure to provide it would not only carry civil liability under the Health and Safety at Work (NI) Order 1978, it also could amount to a criminal offence.
He added: "In the future we could see workers or their families coming forward to launch legal action as they have become ill or a loved one has died as a result of contracting Covid-19 in the course of their employment.
"The Department of Health should be doing absolutely everything in its power to obtain and distribute PPE stock so that healthcare workers can continue to save lives.
"As every day goes by, the Department should better know where demand and need lies and what stocks are available.
"This means there is less and less reason not to have PPE going forward."
Mr Moynagh has advised healthcare workers in fear to email their employers with their concerns.
"Very often when a paper trail exists, issues will be taken more seriously and are less likely to be disputed at a later stage," he explained.
Mr Moynagh added: "During these times, no one wants to use the law as a stick to beat Government with, but we have witnessed too many warning signals and deaths of frontline medical staff."
It emerged on Friday that Stormont's health and finance departments are expected to place a £170m order for PPE today. The BBC's Nolan Show said funds have been set aside for a £60m deposit with a Chinese state firm.
Items on the order include 28.8m facemasks, 12m respirator masks and 28m in both aprons and visors.
The funds being used to place the order were originally set aside for a failed order with the Republic of Ireland but have now been allocated to a new supply route found by Northern Ireland officials in China.
Yesterday Health Minister Robin Swann said his department was working to ensure supplies of PPE are maintained.
"I know our GPs are working hard for all of us and that they are still delivering critical services to the community, despite the unprecedented challenges they face," he said. "GPs continue to order and obtain PPE under the agreed processes."
Mr Swann said his department was also "working hard to build up our PPE stockpiles for the expected second surge later in the year".