The UK government is to call on British manufacturers to increase production of personal protective equipment for NHS staff, as it seeks to ensure it has adequate supplies for medics and nurses in the front line of the coronavirus battle.
Ministers are planning to ask UK companies to step up, or start, production of the protective clothing on which staff rely to keep them safe while treating the highly contagious disease, according to two people familiar with the decision.
It will mirror a call at the start of the week for UK engineering companies to retool production lines to make ventilators badly needed to keep patients alive if they suffer from respiratory complications associated with the virus.
Boris Johnson, prime minister, is ramping up urgent measures to slow the spread of the virus, ordering the closure of schools across the country from Friday, after the number of cases in Britain rose to 2,626 on Wednesday, with 104 deaths.
Much of the protective equipment for medical workers dealing with infected patients is made in China, underlining Britain’s potential vulnerability if it cannot generate its own supplies.
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Concern has been growing among NHS staff, some of whom have taken to social media to complain that they are being forced to work without gowns, masks and other equipment to shield them while they treat patients.
Chaand Nagpaul, who chairs the British Medical Association’s ruling council, said there were “limits to the risks to which doctors, indeed all healthcare workers, can reasonably be expected to expose themselves”.
Dr Nagpaul added: “We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers.”
This, he said, was “totally unacceptable. The government must find a reliable way to substantially increase the production and distribution of PPE.”
In a message posted on its website early this month, NHS Supply Chain, which manages the delivery of products to the NHS, said it had seen “an increased demand for PPE products over the past few weeks as NHS trusts have put in place preparedness measures”. As a result, it was “implementing controls on excessive order quantities to ensure stocks are managed fairly for all customers”.
It warned managers they “may need to consider buying alternative products if necessary while a specific product line is temporarily unavailable in order that their order can be fulfilled”. It had “stock on order from UK and European sources in addition to suppliers based in the Far East”, it said.
On Tuesday, giving evidence to the health select committee, Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, said the country had enough protective equipment “in aggregate” but acknowledged that not all of it had got to the right areas, blaming a distribution issue.
A hotline had been set up so people could say what they needed.
Sir Simon made clear, however, that further supplies would be needed to cope with an outbreak that would last months. In order to meet it, domestic production of the essential items would have to ramp up, he warned MPs.
One junior doctor at an NHS hospital in Scotland, which has treated “several” confirmed coronavirus cases, said the World Health Organization was asking all healthcare workers to wear visors as well as masks.
“But we are so short of visors that not everyone treating a suspected coronavirus patient gets a visor,” he added. Protective suits were available but were “not in abundant supply”, he told the FT.
Additional reporting by Tom Hancock
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