Public Health England has advised healthcare staff to consider reusing personal protective equipment
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has said it is not currently implementing new Public Health England advice to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE) but that it will take national evidence into account in the event of shortages.
The new guidance from Public Health England was issued on Friday and recommends that long-sleeved disposable fluid repellent gowns should be worn when treating Covid-19 patients.
However, if the gowns are not available, clinical staff treating positive patients have now been advised by the UK Department of Health to wear "disposable, non-fluid repellent gowns or coveralls" or "washable surgical gowns", with aprons, and to wash their forearms afterwards.
It also says that staff should consider reusing PPE where necessary if supplies are low.
The Department of Health here said Northern Ireland's Public Health Agency will soon be issuing new advice on when particular items such as visors can be reused depending on the area of work.
But a spokesperson said: "This guidance on the reuse of PPE is not implemented in Northern Ireland at this point, and if or when it might be required the Department will consider this taking account of the national and scientific evidence and will provide further advise at the appropriate time."
They said the Department of Health here understands staff on the frontline need reassurance. "We believe the updated guidance and securing greater quantities of PPE for Northern Ireland will play a part in allaying concerns," they said, advising any staff with concerns to email .
Health chiefs in Northern Ireland say they have secured millions of items from international and local suppliers.
Sinn Fein health spokesperson Colm Gildernew said he spoke directly with Health Minister Robin Swann to appeal to him not to adopt the same measures on Public Health England here.
"Of particular concern within these revised guidelines is that single use PPE can be re-used – something such PPE is not designed to do," Mr Gildernew said.
"This will put frontline health staff – already putting themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis – at an increased risk."
Meanwhile, a significant number of nurses in Northern Ireland responding to a Royal College of Nursing survey conducted over the Easter weekend said they felt under pressure to work in situations where there was not adequate PPE.
Nearly half of those surveyed from Northern Ireland (42%) helping patients in such areas reported being asked to re-use items of protective equipment marked single use by manufacturers.
Of those treating Covid-19 patients elsewhere, over a third (38%) said they were being asked to re-use.
Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland said: “We all know that nursing staff have been under enormous pressure during this pandemic, however it is shocking to find that nurses are feeling pressurised to work without the protection they need.”
The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) has also advised workers "not to risk their health" by working without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) amid fears that hospitals could run out of supplies.
The fear from medics comes as more than 15,000 patients have now died in hospital after testing positive for the disease in the UK, with thousands more deaths expected in care homes.
A further 17 deaths as a result of coronavirus were announced in Northern Ireland on Saturday, along with a further 148 confirmed cases of the virus, in the biggest daily rise to date. It brings the total number of cases here to 2,486.
Mr Gildernew called for the Department of Health here to offer reassurance to healthcare staff.
"The Department of Health needs to listen to frontline workers and their unions; give assurances that the revised guidance will not be adopted here and the minister should redouble his efforts to ensure sufficient supply of PPE is secured and made available when and where it is needed."
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said a consignment of 84 tonnes of PPE was due to arrive in the UK from Turkey on Sunday.
He said this shipment included 400,000 gowns - the supply of which NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said on Saturday was now "critical".
"Supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the front line," Mr Jenrick said,
"But they should be assured that we are doing everything we can to correct this issue, and to get them the equipment that they need."