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Doctor couple challenge UK government on PPE risks to BAME staff

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Two doctors are launching a legal challenge over government guidance on personal protective equipment which they say exposes them to coronavirus infections.

Dr Meenal Viz and Dr Nishant Joshi, who are married and expecting their first child, argue the NHS recommendations breach international standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as domestic legislation on health and safety at work.

Last week, the NHS asked doctors and nurses to work without protective full-length gowns when treating Covid-19 patients, as hospitals came within hours of running out of supplies.

Dr Viz is a clinical fellow in medicine and Dr Joshi a GP trainee. Both are employed by the NHS and have been working with patients suffering from Covid-19.

There is mounting concern over the heightened vulnerability of black, Asian and minority ethnic people to Covid-19. The first 10 doctors in the UK named as having died from the virus were all BAME.

Viz and Joshi said as part of the challenge: “We are doctors, we are nurses and we are healthcare workers – we will be there for you in your time of need. We will be there for your family. The government needs to protect us, so that we can protect you.”

Basmah Sahib, a solicitor at the London law firm Bindmans, who is acting for the couple, has sent Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care a formal letter before action seeking a response by next Monday.

The challenge is against official guidance introduced on 17 April that permitted medical staff to wear flimsy plastic aprons with coveralls when full-length gowns run out.

The challenge says healthcare workers are being exposed to a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 and maintains that the guidance fails to address the heightened risks faced by BAME healthcare workers.

The letter also argues the guidance is unclear, has resulted in inconsistent practices across NHS trusts and fails to make clear that healthcare workers have a right to refuse to work without adequate PPE.

Joshi and Viz added: “It is the government’s duty to protect its healthcare workers, and there is great anxiety amongst staff with regards to safety protocols that seem to change without rhyme or reason. Every time a healthcare worker becomes hospitalised with Covid-19, it exacts an extraordinary toll on our friends, family and colleagues.

“To sedate and ventilate your own colleague takes a mental toll on the entire workforce. The government owes an apology to these bereaved families, many of whom were unable to be with their loved ones in their dying moments.”

Joshi told the Guardian he hoped his challenge would not have to go to court. He welcomed the latest comments from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, as a first acknowledgment that “the guidelines are based on resources. There was a shortage [of PPE] and the government has not been transparent about why they engaged British manufacturers.”

He said he had been contacted by doctors from around the country “who have been trying to raise concerns [about the lack of PPE] because they feel intimidated by managers in their own NHS trusts.” He said he had talked to an NHS cleaner who felt compelled to work even though she felt unprotected.

“I have lost count of the number of colleagues who have gone off sick through confirmed or suspected coronavirus. Some have become very unwell and some have ended up in hospital … Doctors don’t want to go into hpspital [as patients]. There’s an embarrassment of being treated colleagues and they don’t to show [what hey think is] weakeness.”

Public Heath England said: “The safety of those working on the frontline in health and social care is our number one priority. The UK guidance, written with NHS leaders and agreed by all four chief medical officers, in consultation with royal and medical colleges, recommends the safest level of personal protective equipment . The WHO has confirmed that UK guidance is consistent with what it recommends for the highest risk procedures.”

The Guardian is investigating how the UK government prepared for – and is responding to – the coronavirus pandemic. We want to learn more about recent decisions taken at the heart of government. If you’re a whistleblower or source and with new information, you can email investigations@theguardian.com, or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message (UK) +44 7584 640566.

Sahib said: “The NHS is the UK’s biggest employer. Almost all of us have a friend or loved one who is putting their life at risk to care for Covid-19 patients.

“The least they deserve is honesty, clear guidance and proper support from the secretary of state to feel safe and protected at work.”

The Department for Health has been asked for comment.

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