A third of doctors treating patients in high-risk Covid-19 settings are often still unable to access adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), a survey has found.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) reports that more than a third of those working in aerosol generating procedure (AGP) areas could not always access long-sleeved disposable gowns (31%) or full-face visors (37%).
In a survey of 2,129 RCP members, some 86% of respondents said they were working in non-AGP areas with confirmed or possible cases of Covid-19.
Of those, some 40% said they are not always able to access eye protection, while 15.5% are not always able to access fluid repellent face masks, according to the RCP.
Ministers have come under mounting pressure over the Government’s ability to ensure frontline staff treating coronavirus patients have the protection they need.
Despite assurances that the Government is pursuing “every possible option” to increase supply, the RCP said general access to PPE had worsened this month.
More than a quarter (26.5%) of those surveyed reported being unable to access the kit they need for managing Covid-19 patients – compared with 22% in a similar survey earlier this month.
The RCP found that almost a quarter of respondents (23%) do not know how to raise concerns about PPE in their organisation.
Meanwhile, staff absences have dropped from 18% to 8% in the past three weeks, according to the survey.
Some 91% of those with symptoms of the virus said they are now able to access testing – up from 31% three weeks ago.
However, the RCP said that 29% are still unable to access testing for a symptomatic member of their household.
It found that almost a third (29%) of respondents have moved to work in different clinical areas from those they are normally used to, while half (53%) are now working on acute medicine wards and 14% on a Covid-19 ward.
President, Professor Andrew Goddard, 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.
“Testing and PPE supply will be critical in getting ‘normal’ services going and we mustn’t underestimate the challenges ahead.”
Dr Matthew Roycroft, joint chairman of the trainees committee at the RCP said: “As a junior doctor working on the front line 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 speciality 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.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said trusts were “working hard” to address shortages – such as sharing stock where possible and looking at safe ways of re-using some kit.
“Trust leaders have told us that, in general, after a difficult start, with the exception of visors and gowns, they now have the PPE they need,” he said.
“It will be important – when the time comes for a public inquiry – to examine why the pandemic stockpile was not configured for an epidemic like the one we face today and didn’t have enough gowns and visors.
“The priority for now though is to ensure a reliable supply and distribution of all types of PPE so it’s available in sufficient quantities wherever it’s required.
“And that must obviously include GP surgeries, care homes and hospices where we know distribution problems still persist.”