Doctors and nurses will be asked to work without full-length gowns and to reuse items when treating coronavirus patients ahead of expected shortages of protective garments.
The Government has been under fire for weeks over the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), with some frontline staff warning that they have had to work in situations where they feel unsafe.
Public Health England (PHE) reversed its guidance on Friday evening which stipulated long-sleeved disposable fluid repellent gowns should be worn when treating Covid-19 patients.
If the gowns are not available, clinical staff are now advised to wear “disposable, non-fluid repellent gowns or coveralls” or “washable surgical gowns”, with aprons, and to wash their forearms afterwards.
The updated guidance states that the “reuse of PPE should be implemented until confirmation of adequate re-supply is in place”, and that “some compromise is needed to optimise the supply of PPE in times of extreme shortages”.
At least 50 NHS workers have now died after contracting coronavirus.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Week after week, we hear of problems in PPE getting to the front line despite what ministers tell us at Downing Street press conferences.
“This ongoing failure needs fixing and ministers must explain how they will fix it urgently.”
Dr Rob Harwood, consultants committee chairman at the British Medical Association, added: “Telling staff to use aprons in the place of gowns directly contravenes both Public Health England’s previous guidance and that of the World Health Organisation. This is guidance that’s there to help keep healthcare workers and their patients, out of harm’s way.
“If it’s being proposed that staff reuse equipment, this must be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence – rather than availability – and it absolutely cannot compromise the protection of healthcare workers.
Hospitals set to ârun outâ of gowns by Monday. Week after week we hear of problems in PPE getting to the frontline despite what ministers tell us at Downing Street press conferences. This ongoing failure needs fixing and ministers must explain how they will fix it urgently. https://t.co/r6JEt3WPkM— Jonathan Ashworth (@JonAshworth) April 17, 2020
“Too many healthcare workers have already died. More doctors and their colleagues cannot be expected to put their own lives on the line in a bid to save others, and this new advice means they could be doing just that. It’s not a decision they should have to make.”
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said some trusts could run out of gowns this weekend despite “carefully managing” remaining stock and collaborating with neighbouring health organisations where possible.
She said: “We all hope that this temporary disruption to supply will be short-lived and that the gowns that were ordered a long time ago, and should have already arrived, start arriving consistently and reliably rather than in the current fits and starts.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “New clinical advice has been issued today to make sure that if there are shortages in one area, frontline staff know what PPE to wear instead to minimise risk.”
Earlier on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged more companies to volunteer to manufacture PPE domestically – and admitted he would “love to be able to wave a magic wand” to increase PPE supplies.
He told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that the equipment was a “precious resource” and that maintaining supplies was challenging due to the very high global demand.
His comments followed reports that the head of an NHS trust in southern England had asked for help from Burberry, fearing his staff would soon run out of hospital gowns.
It came as a leading physician warned that Britain will face “further waves” of Covid-19 and will probably have the highest death rate in Europe because the Government was “too slow” to act.
Professor Anthony Costello, of University College London’s Institute for Global Health, said the “harsh reality” is that “we were too slow with a number of things” and deaths could reach to 40,000.
The Department of Health said a total of 14,576 patients have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Thursday, up by 847 from the day before.
– Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the Government’s furlough scheme by another month until the end of June.
– London Mayor Sadiq Khan urged the Government to change its advice to the public on wearing face masks to combat the spread of the virus.
– Downing Street suggested summer holidays should not be booked yet as there is no certainty of when the lockdown will be lifted and travel can resume.
– Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would deviate from the UK Government’s lockdown measures if her advisers told her it was in the best interests of her country.
– Public Health England said there were 3,084 care homes with Covid-19 outbreaks in England, as of April 15.
The Government also faced further criticism over a gulf between those being tested and the testing capacity, with just 18,665 tests being conducted in the 24 hours up to 9am on Thursday, despite 38,000 tests being available.
Mr Hancock announced on Friday that testing would be expanded to those in the police, fire service and prisons, as well as critical local authority workers, the judiciary and Department for Work and Pensions staff where required.
In other developments, the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine was given a boost by the launch of a Government taskforce.
Led by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan van Tam, it will support efforts to rapidly develop a vaccine as soon as possible.
As well as providing industry and research institutions with the resources and support, the group will review regulations to allow quick and safe vaccine trials.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the daily Downing Street press conference: “The taskforce will support progress across all stages of vaccine development and at pace.
“It will back Britain’s most promising research, positioning the UK as a leader in clinical vaccine testing and manufacturing.
“The taskforce will co-ordinate with regulators to facilitate trials which are both rapid and well supervised and it will work with industry in the UK and internationally so we’re in a position to manufacture vaccines at scale.”