GPs have called for urgent clarification on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when seeing patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said it had concerns about the quality of some of the equipment being issued, and called on Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to address a lack of consistent guidelines for its use.
The RCGP said GPs and their health teams needed reassurance they would be safe when coming face-to-face with patients.
In a letter, Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, warned Mr Hancock that "GPs across the country have never been more concerned, not just for the safety of themselves and their teams, but for patients too"
The letter continued: "Our members are telling us that their confidence to carry out patient consultations is being impacted by uncertainty over the quality of PPE being supplied to their surgeries.
"This is particularly relevant for aprons and eye protection, which many believe to be providing inadequate protection."
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The letter was sent as the British Medical Association issued an "unambiguous warning" that some doctors treating COVID-19 patients could become ill or die because of the lack of adequate PPE.
Another said: "We are being asked to risk our lives and our loved ones' lives, in flimsy paper masks and plastic aprons," adding "I don't know if I can do it."
The BMA said there was a discrepancy between what the Government said would be delivered and the reality of PPE supplies.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: "We are told that lorries are shipping hundreds of boxes of supplies of PPE to GPs and to hospitals, but that isn’t the reality for thousands of our members.
"The type of PPE being supplied is not in keeping with the WHO [World Health Organisation] recommendations.
"GPs in many parts of England have been told to go and buy their own stocks, only to find none is available."
Call for Clarity on PPE
The WHO has recommended that GPs should be using eye protection during consultations, but the RCGP said that currently most practices did not have enough of this equipment, and there were "concerns around the use of aprons, and whether clinicians should have full body cover when seeing patients".
Prof Marshall continued: "As the situation develops further, GPs will see an increasing number of patients with COVID-19. Whilst many of these patients will have symptoms associated with the virus, there are those who will present asymptomatically, particularly in primary care settings, but could still be infectious. It is therefore vital that urgent clarity is provided as to whether GPs should begin wearing PPE for all face-to-face patient consultations."
Referring to supplies of PPE, Prof Marshall said that "GPs are unsure as to whether they have enough supplies" during what was "one of the greatest public health challenges of our time".
Commenting on why he wrote to Mr Hancock, Prof Marshall said: "We are living and working in unprecedented times – GPs are aware of this and are stepping up to the challenge, and the College recognises that a huge amount of work is ongoing to ensure the NHS will be able to cope with COVID-19. But our members are worried, not just for themselves and their teams but their patients and it’s important that the Government understands their concerns so that they can be rectified.
"We have been encouraged to hear that millions of pieces of PPE have been ordered – and we need to see this making its way to GP practices, as well as hospitals, but we also need clarity about how to most effectively use it, and reassurance that all elements of the PPE we receive is safe."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We are working around the clock to give the NHS and the wider social care sector the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.
"Over the last 2 days, more than 15 million facemasks have been delivered to the frontline and yesterday's deliveries included 24.6 million gloves and 1.9 million eye protectors.
"The full weight of the Government is behind this effort and we are working closely with industry, social care providers, the NHS, and the army so all our NHS and care staff have the protection they deserve."