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The government has today published a new national personal protective equipment (PPE) strategy that it claims will secure an “uninterrupted” supply of items for nurses and colleagues treating Covid-19 patients this winter.
As part of the strategy, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced that four-month stockpiles of PPE including face masks, visors and gowns would be in place across health and social care in the UK from November.
However, unions warned that health and care staff may need further reassurance from the government that they would not experience the same PPE “nightmares” during any second wave like they did at the start of the pandemic.
They also urged the government to ensure that items were appropriately designed to meet the needs of all staff on the frontline and not just “Caucasian males”.
The new PPE strategy sets out the government’s “data-driven” approach to securing the equipment needed to respond to rising rates of coronavirus infection.
It stated that 32 billion items of PPE had now been purchased for use across the UK and more than 16 billion items had been delivered or were in transit.
“Nurses have already seen the impact of not being able to access the right PPE when they need it, and this cannot be allowed to happen again”
The strategy highlighted that 70% of the expected demand of equipment would be met by UK manufacturers by December.
Before the pandemic, just 1% of PPE was produced in the UK, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
Under the 39-page strategy, the department acknowledged some “practical difficulties” that were experienced by women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff when using the equipment that was distributed.
This was a concern reported by Nursing Times in May, when an MP said PPE was only suitable for the likes of rugby players and not women from an ethnic minority background.
In a bid to drive improvement in this area, NHS England and NHS Improvement had launched a new project, led by a deputy chief nursing officer, to “gather the robust evidence and data we need to understand any problems and take action”, according to the report.
As an example of the work already taken place, it said data from FFP3 respirator mask fit-testing programmes across 47 NHS trusts had been collected and was now being used to improve the fit of these items.
“We have worked every day since to ensure we have an uninterrupted supply to meet the challenges in the coming months”
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the government’s commitment to listen to and take action on the difficulties of using PPE faced by BAME staff and women was “vital”.
However, she stressed that the “underlying issue that PPE is manufactured to fit the average measurements of Caucasian males must be addressed urgently”.
“There is an opportunity to do this now given the growth in the number of new domestic manufacturers,” she added.
Susan Masters, director of nursing, policy and public affairs at the RCN, also highlighted the need for the government to ensure that PPE was “designed to meet the needs of nursing staff while also meeting technical specifications”.
“Nursing staff in all settings have already seen the impact of not being able to access the right PPE or testing where and when they need it, and this cannot be allowed to happen again,” she said.
Launching the strategy today, Mr Hancock acknowledged that at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, “meeting the huge demands for PPE was a massive challenge”.
“That’s why we have worked every day since to ensure we have an uninterrupted supply to meet the challenges in the coming months and protect those who are protecting us,” he said.
Mr Hancock stressed this new PPE plan aimed to “reassure our health and social care workers that they will have the PPE they need to carry out their tireless work”.
However, Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said health and care workers may need more convincing following the problems seen in the initial peak of the pandemic.
“It’s been a terrible time and with infections on the rise, the pandemic is far from over,” she said.
“Health staff and care workers need reassurances there’ll be no repeats of the nightmares with safety kit shortages they faced in the spring.”
The union welcomed news that most PPE would be coming from UK firms because it would mean “supplies will be guaranteed and won’t have to be shipped as far”.
However, Ms Gorton added that there were other aspects of staff welfare that “must also be tackled to increase safety and reduce pressures”. “They all need proper breaks and the chance to take leave,” she said.
Meanwhile, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The devil will be in the detail, but health leaders will welcome that there is a national strategy for protecting their staff, one which hopefully avoids the chaotic and anxiety causing scenes experienced in the spring.”