COVID-19: doctors' bring legal challenge over PPE shortages

  • Peter Russell, Medscape.com

  • UK Medical News
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Doctors' leaders have issued a High Court challenge against the Government for its refusal to launch an urgent inquiry into shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff and other frontline care workers.

The crowdfunded legal challenge is being brought by the Doctors' Association UK (DAUK), Hourglass – a charity that works to prevent the abuse of older people – and the Good Law Project.

The challenge will seek to show that under human rights legislation, the Department of Health and Social Care should have held an independent inquiry into whether PPE shortages may have caused or contributed to the deaths or serious illness from COVID-19 of health and social care workers, as well as patients.

There have been at least 180 deaths of NHS staff and 131 deaths of social care workers in England during the pandemic.

Second Wave Warning

Dr Rinesh Parmar, the Association's chair, said: "We have seen over the last few weeks that the UK has one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the world. Health and social care workers rose to the challenge, returned to the front line from retirement and pulled out all the stops to save lives. Some had no personal protective equipment (PPE), others had inadequate, out-of-date, perishing supplies. Alongside caring for patients, we’ve cared for colleagues and also faced the sad and grim reality of losing colleagues, who themselves were caring for patients. 

"As we recover from the first wave of COVID-19 there is a real and credible possibility that we will face a second wave in the coming months or into the winter. Now is the time to learn key lessons to enable us to avoid future pitfalls, protect the front line and ultimately save lives. 

"Our calls for a public inquiry and our petition of nearly 120,000 signatures have all fallen on deaf ears as the Government buries its head in the sand and steadfastly refuses to commit to the learning required to prevent further tragedies."

Legal firm Bindmans LLP and Paul Bowen QC of Brick Court Chambers in London have been instructed on the case.

Last month, Jamie Potter, a partner at Bindmans, and solicitor for two frontline health workers, said: "The Government continue to seek to avoid transparency as to the risks such workers are facing with different levels of PPE and confirmation they are entitled to refuse to work where they consider the risks too great."

Shortages of Masks, Gowns, and Eye Protection

DAUK created an online tool to enable doctors to report PPE shortages. As of 2nd June 2020, 1373 reports had been filed from 269 hospitals across the UK. These showed that:

  • 38% of doctors said that at times they have had no eye protection at all

  • 23% of the doctors said they were performing high-risk aerosol-generating procedures (AGP) without eye protection

  • In 70% of reports, doctors said that they had, at times, no access to Filter Face Piece 3 (FFP3) masks

  • Three-quarters of doctors reported that at times there was a shortage of long-sleeved gowns, with 47% reporting a shortage of gowns when conducting AGP

Amongst documents to be submitted to the court is a witness statement from the son of Dr Peter Tun. Dr Tun was an associate specialist in the neurorehabilitation ward at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, who died in April after contracting COVID-19.

His son, Michael, said his father had asked hospital authorities for PPE after noting a lack of surgical masks, eye protection kits, gowns, and scrubs.

In his statement, Michael Tun, stressed the importance of an independent inquiry into the provision of PPE in the NHS. He said it was "crucial to understand fully if the

circumstances [that] led to my father’s death was unique to his Trust or if these challenges are more widespread across the NHS." He added: "If there is a second wave, it could be the difference between life or death for many other[s] like him."

'Urgent' Need for Inquiry

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project said: "You may think we will get a public inquiry, one day. Fine, perhaps we will. But for it to be meaningful it must have sensible terms of reference. It must be independent, by which we mean not led by a handpicked civil servant. And it must be soon – because we need to learn lessons before a second or third wave."

Richard Robinson, CEO of Hourglass, said: "Recent figures have shown that at least 40% of all coronavirus deaths so far have occurred in care homes – the very places dedicated to keeping older people safe in their later years." 

He added: "As lockdown restrictions ease, it is vital that lessons are learned from our response to the pandemic before we encounter a second wave. There can be no excuse for a repeat of the carnage we’ve seen in our care homes over the last few months. 

"The Government must act now and commit to an urgent public enquiry before yet more lives are lost."

In Memoriam: Healthcare Workers Who Have Died of COVID-19.

Adapted from Medscape UK.