The UK government failed to include key items of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gowns and visors, in its pandemic stockpile before coronavirus reached the UK, an investigation has found.
Gowns, visors, swabs and body bags were left out of the stockpile when it was set up in 2009 and the government ignored a warning by its own expert committee that it should buy the missing equipment, according to a report by the BBC’s Panorama.
The programme’s investigation found that the committee which advises ministers on new and emerging respiratory virus threats (Nervtag) recommended the purchase of gowns, which are now one of the items in shortest supply in the UK, last June.
It came as the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) warned the PPE situation had “worsened over the past three weeks”, with one-third of physicians working in high-risk settings reporting they were running short of long-sleeved gowns or full-face visors.
In response to the programme, the UK government said it had taken “the right steps at the right time” over the virus.
A government spokesperson told Panorama that Nervtag did not recommend stockpiling swabs and body bags. They added that the stockpile had been designed for a flu pandemic and said Covid-19 had a higher rate of sufferers needing hospital treatment.
Professor John Ashton, a public health expert who has previously criticised the government’s approach, said the failure to stockpile some items meant NHS staff were working without crucial equipment.
“The consequence of not planning, not ordering kit, not having stockpiles, is that we are sending into the front line doctors, nurses, other health workers and social care workers without the equipment to keep them safe,” he told Panorama.
More than 90 front-line NHS workers have died during the UK’s epidemic, according to the PA news agency, and other deaths have occurred due to the virus in sectors such as private social care and transport.
A minute’s silence was held at 11am on Tuesday to remember key workers who have died during the pandemic.
“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said.
“The government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Monday that families of NHS and social care staff who die from Covid-19 in the course of their duties would receive a £60,000 payment as part of the government’s life assurance scheme.
However, the British Medical Association (BMA) has warned the scheme may not go far enough and could leave families bereft of longer-term financial security.
“Losing a loved one during these horrific times will be difficult enough for families, without the added pressure of losing what may be their main source of income, leaving them unsure of what the future holds,” Dr Vishal Sharma, the BMA’s pensions committee chair, said.
“Whilst this single payment may seem a sizeable sum, it comes nowhere near compensating families for the lifetime income their loved one may have earned if they hadn’t died prematurely, fighting this crisis on the frontline.”
Additional reporting by Press Association