Healthcare staff working in some of the most high-risk COVID-19 settings are still struggling to access the protective personal equipment (PPE) they need to keep them safe.
According to a survey of Royal College of Physicians (RCP) members, over a third of those working in aerosol generating procedure (AGP) areas were unable to always access long sleeved disposable gowns (31%) or full-face visors (37%).
Some 86% of respondents said they were working in non-AGP areas with confirmed or possible cases of COVID-19. And yet among those, 40% said they are not always able to access eye protection, and 15.5% are not always able to access fluid repellent face masks.
The RCP survey, conducted for the second time this month, shows that in the last three weeks, general access to PPE has worsened. More than a quarter (26.5%) of respondents report being unable to access the PPE they need for managing COVID-19 patients, compared to 22% in our first survey.
Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they don’t know how to raise concerns about PPE in their organisation.
On a more positive note, the survey found that staff absences have dropped from 18% to 8% in the past three weeks, and 91% of those with COVID-19 symptoms said they are now able to access testing for themselves, up from just 31% three weeks ago. However, 29% are still unable to access testing for a symptomatic member of their household.
Today’s survey also found that almost a third (29%) of respondents have moved to work in different clinical areas from those they are normally used to, indicating the vast changes that have been made across the NHS workforce in the fight against COVID-19. Over half (53%) are now working on acute medicine wards and 14% on a COVID-19 ward.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said: “We’re living through the darkest times the NHS has ever faced and this survey shows the reality of the situation facing hospital doctors at the moment.
“The lack of PPE remains their biggest concern and it is truly terrible that supply has worsened over the past three weeks rather than improved.
“Healthcare workers risking their lives couldn't care less how many billion pieces of PPE have been ordered or supplied. If it isn't there when they need it, they are in harm's way.
“It is encouraging that testing rates have improved for staff and that sickness rates have fallen. However, we are only 6 weeks into what will be many months of upheaval for the NHS and getting services back up and running is going to need Herculean effort.
“Testing and PPE supply will be critical in getting 'normal' services going and we mustn't underestimate the challenges ahead. As the number of COVID-19 cases fall one of those challenges is getting doctors back into their normal working areas. Until this happens 'normal' business can't restart."
Dr Matthew Roycroft, joint chair of the trainees committee at the Royal College of Physicians said: “As a junior doctor working on the frontline of the NHS, I can say without hesitation that this has been the hardest time of my career.
“Not only are many trainees working outside of our specialty areas, but we are also doing so without fully trusting that the government will support us when it comes to treating those with COVID-19.
“Without the right PPE my colleagues and I may find ourselves with the most awful of conundrums on our hands - having to choose between protecting our own lives or protecting those of the patients we treat.
“This isn’t what any of us signed up for, and certainly isn’t a decision any doctor should have to make.”
This survey was sent out via an email to RCP members in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland on Wednesday 22 April 2020 and was filled in by 2,129 people over a period of 24 hours.
A previous survey similar to the above was sent to members on 1 April 2020.
Further information about both surveys is on our website.
For further information or to arrange an interview with an RCP spokesperson, please call our out of hours phone number - 07896 416409