Boris Johnson has insisted the UK has “stockpiles” of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS after some frontline staff said they were “scared” about shortages.
One doctor likened current protective equipment for some staff to “the type of thing you would wear if you were preparing food in a factory”.
And a GP surgery received face masks with 2016 expiry dates, with stickers placed over the best before dates.
Boris Johnson told MPs that there was a “massive effort” ongoing to ensure that staff had enough equipment throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “NHS staff are on the frontline and many are scared because the guidance has been changed to say that they do not need to wear full protective equipment when caring for patients.
“A senior doctor has said ‘the rest of the world is providing staff with full protective gear and we’re restricting it’.
“And this is a doctor saying ‘I’m scared’. We shouldn’t be scaring doctors and nurses. Is there a policy for them to have full protective equipment or not?”
Mr Johnson said: “This is a huge concern to everyone that our NHS staff should feel that they are able to interact with patients with perfect security and protection so there is a massive effort going on – comparable to the effort to build enough ventilators – to ensure that we have adequate supply of PPE equipment not just now but throughout the outbreak.”
When probed on PPE, priority virus testing for NHS staff, mass testing and social distancing measures, the Prime Minister continued: “We have stockpiles of PPE equipment and we are proceeding in accordance with the best scientific advice.
“And it is the timeliness of those measures that is absolutely vital in combating the spread of the epidemic and that is how you save lives.”
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, said: “This week in County Durham at least one GP surgery received surgical masks from the NHS with expiry dates of 2016. In other cases labels had been stuck over extending the dates of those boxes.”
The Prime Minister said he would look into the case, adding: “To the best of my knowledge all the equipment we are sending out is of the correct standard.
“We currently have stockpiles of PPE and are making huge efforts to make sure we have enough for the outbreak ahead.”
Despite these assurances, one NHS doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, told the PA news agency: “I worked for the Government in West Africa during the Ebola response.
“We had robust SOPs [standard operating procedures] and the correct PPE for protecting personnel.
“We also tested widely. It seems like all the lessons learnt from that are being completely ignored higher up.
“Right now the stuff staff are being provided with is the type of thing you would wear if you were preparing food in a factory.
“An apron, a surgical mask – it doesn’t protect you from any particulate of the virus. The surgical mask doesn’t do anything.
“It’s the same issue when we sent troops to Afghanistan, they didn’t give them proper body armour equipment until families kicked up a stink.
“That’s a massive issue as we don’t know the implications of repeat exposure to the virus.
“Healthy health care workers in China have died from that.
“You need confidence. When we were in West Africa there was no shortage of equipment or strict procedures. A completely different disease, I appreciate that, but I’m not sure why we’re not using the FFB3 masks or N97 masks. I just don’t understand.”
A critical care nurse working in the north of England also told PA: “Currently the lack of PPE is more than concerning.
“The sub-standard protection is shocking and the advice from infection control is poor and not evidence based in my opinion but is due to lack or resources.
“Staff will do our best but I fear we will not manage anywhere near as well in the NHS due to lack of fundamental basic resources.”
Dr Rob Hendry, medical director at the Medical Protection Society, said: “These are extremely challenging and unprecedented times for all healthcare professionals providing frontline services and advice.
“While healthcare workers will always make patients their paramount concern, their personal safety is a priority and they must have confidence in the supply and adequacy of their PPE.
“The profession is in need of ongoing reassurance and transparency at this time – both on the scientific evidence around PPE and on distribution procedures and issues.”
Rose Gallagher, the lead for infection prevention control at the Royal College of Nursing, added: “Nursing is a highly complex, safety-critical profession.
“Everywhere that nursing staff are working at the frontline, it is vital that they have the right equipment they need – including appropriate personal protective equipment for their health, safety and wellbeing.
“The law requires that healthcare staff are provided with the right protective equipment and the Royal College of Nursing is very clear that all nursing staff are provided with this equipment whatever setting they are working in.”