Giving evidence to MPs, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that assurances made by the government around PPE supplies ‘were not matched on the ground’ when clinicians needed protecting most – arguing that doctors deserved to be told the truth about stocks and delivery of equipment.
The BMA chair highlighted problems with masks that were out of date but had been cleared for use, only to fail safety checks later – leaving staff treating patients without protection.
He added that healthcare professionals felt ‘very unsettled’ using PPE from providers not previously used by the NHS, and that they felt forced to choose between inadequate protection or nothing at all.
Responding to questions on PPE shortages among frontline staff during the early stages of the pandemic, Dr Nagpaul said: ‘I actually believed that [we had sufficient supplies of PPE in reserve] because that’s what we were told in the Coronavirus Action Plan and from the chief operating officer of NHS England in mid-March, [and] that the issue was one of delivery.
‘But it transpired later on that the stockpiles were not there at all in sufficient numbers because by the middle of April we had to get stocks from Turkey and from anywhere else in the world at very short notice. We took it on face value because we were at all times told it was an issue of delivery, but we now know that there weren’t sufficient supplies.’
He said masks marked as safe by the government were later discovered to be inadequate. This was after GPs flagged in March that supplies of PPE delivered to practices were ‘four years out of date’ and had stickers covering expiry dates.
‘We did raise this with NHS England and the answer we got initially was that these supplies had been retested and they were safe. [But it was found] that many of these were faulty and didn’t meet the safety standards, even though we were told they had.’
Dr Nagpaul told MPs that the BMA was very concerned that doctors in the UK were not given the same PPE as colleagues in Europe – in line with WHO guidance – highlighting that the association had to ‘fight hard’ before the government agreed to provide eye protection in April.
The BMA chair added that the government’s use of previously unknown suppliers resulted in inadequate PPE being provided to GP practices, which eventually had to be discarded. He highlighted that NHS England staff were only able to use 6.7% of a 67,000-medical gown order from Turkey because they failed to pass British safety standards.
Dr Nagpaul added trusted suppliers known to the BMA also faced ‘a brick wall’ when offering their help to the government. ‘The BMA has expressed very serious concerns about the way the government chose to contract without tendering and give significant sums of public money to suppliers, with those supplies to be delivered without the proper checks that would have assured us safety.’
The BMA chair recommended that the country should have a better preparedness plan for future pandemics, especially in terms of PPE stocks – suggesting that the country should ‘ramp up’ production of equipment in the UK, and be less reliant on overseas providers.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson, said: ‘The safety of NHS and social care staff has always been our top priority and we continue to work tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect those on the frontline.
‘As the National Audit Office (NAO) report recognised, during this unprecedented pandemic all the NHS providers audited “were always able to get what they needed in time” thanks to the herculean effort of the government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry who delivered over 5.1 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.
‘Any expiry date alterations were based on independent testing to the satisfaction of the Health and Safety Executive and any issues found with stock were urgently investigated and addressed.’