A nurses representative body has urged Northern Ireland’s health minister to explain “mixed messages” around personal protective equipment supplies.
Robin Swann has insisted the health service has “significant levels of PPE in stock”, but said “every effort” is being made to secure more ahead of the expected surge of coronavirus cases.
Chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle also said there was sufficient stock at the moment.
However Dr Cathy Jack, chief executive of the Belfast health trust, earlier told the Stormont health committee that while there are sufficient basic masks, gloves and aprons, securing respiratory FFP3 masks was a challenge.
“We are making sure that we match our requirement to make sure our staff are protected but PPE, and in particular the FFP3, is a real challenge for us, and we are doing everything we can to protect our staff, make sure they are fit tested and have the right equipment at the right time,” she added.
Pat Cullen from the Royal College of Nursing has asked for clarity over both supplies of PPE and Covid-19 testing.
The number of people who have died in Northern Ireland after contracting the virus has risen by six to 36, health officials said.
Testing has resulted in 85 new positive cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the region to 774.
Belfast City Hospital is being set up as Northern Ireland’s Nightingale hospital ahead of the expected surge in the region and will include 230 intensive care beds for the most seriously ill.
Ms Cullen has urged Mr Swann to allay nurses’ concerns.
“Please just come out and say to them, ‘it is here nurses, we’ve got it in our stocks, it’s in our supply chain and you will definitely have it for every single procedure that you will carry out. We will not expose you or we will not place you at any risk’,” she told the BBC.
“That’s all we want to hear.”
Dr Jack told the health committee that the trust had expected to get 10,000 1895 masks for intensive care staff this week, but just 1,000 arrived.
She said the trust has 8,000 of another type of mask in stock and an assurance from the department that 30,000 more are on the way, but cautioned there are only 666 employees in high-risk areas fit tested for it.
“Dr Jack was as straight forward as she could be, where she said she’s got concerns so can you imagine what that concern is like when you translate it to the front line, it is more than concerning, it is very concerning with an extra 230 beds coming to the City Hospital that require the highest level of PPE,” Ms Cullen said.
“Under our legal obligations to our members last night we did write to each and every one of them to say they will not be expected to carry out care where they are not provided with the proper and correct PPE … we have taken our legal advice on that today.
“The minister for health and the department for health … I would ask them again tonight, if there has been mixed messages today, perhaps they have got lost in translation, just come out, either issue a letter to them, do that this evening, send it to them and absolute support for people trying to do their job.”
At the daily ministerial press conference at Stormont, finance minister Conor Murphy said there was a “huge scramble” for PPE across the world.
He said the situation had been exacerbated by the fact the US and India had “woken up to the catastrophe” and were now actively trying to source supply, moves that were “overshadowing” efforts by smaller countries.
“Those are challenges but those are challenges that nonetheless we are working on every single day,” he said.
Ms Cullen also expressed concerns over the supply of coronavirus tests and urged that the promised “ramping up” of testing is made to happen.
Mr Swann gave evidence to the health committee on Thursday morning and was asked by acting chair Pat Sheehan (Sinn Fein) how many of the 400 million items of PPE referred to as being distributed in the UK in the last two weeks had come to Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann responded: “We haven’t received any of that as of yet but we are in the supply chain so that is on the way to us.
“We still have our own stocks and supplies, and what I wouldn’t want to do here is get into any sort of political discussion about who has supplied or who hasn’t supplied. The order is in… it’s on its way, it’s not that it is being denied to us, or it’s not that we haven’t got it, it is in the distribution chain.”
Mr Swann also said testing facilities are being prepared in a car park at the SSE Arena and MOT centres.
He said authorities have been trying to get testing improved “as hard and as fast as we can”.
“We haven’t pushed it as hard or as fast as I would like it to have been, but every day we see changes and developments in our testing capability,” he said.