STEPHEN GLOVER: Why ARE we relying on China for vital gowns to protect frontline NHS staff?

  • Six weeks ago on Tuesday, Boris Johnson delivered his first pandemic warning 
  • At that stage, there had been only 51 recorded UK cases of coronavirus 
  • Now there are nearly 20 times that number of deaths every day in the country 
  • It feels, not for the first time, that no one is fully in charge of this terrible crisis. 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

When did the authorities first become aware that this country would face a deadly contagion that would cost the lives of many thousands? It must be at least two months back. 

Six weeks ago on Tuesday, Boris Johnson delivered what then seemed a shocking statement in which he warned of a serious pandemic. At that stage, there had been only 51 recorded UK cases of coronavirus. 

Now there are nearly 20 times that number of deaths every day. No one knows when or how this will end. But it is clear that a lack of basic equipment, in particular gowns, is putting the lives of NHS staff at risk. 

The extreme shortage of PPE is adding increasing strain to NHS staff across the nation, as guidelines state protective clothing should be worn by anyone – including doctors, nurses, care home workers and paramedics – within two metres of a suspected coronavirus patient

The question which doctors, nurses and others on the front line have every right to ask is why – with at least two months’ notice – the Government has not made better provision for something so comparatively basic. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has boasted that 761million of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been produced for the NHS. Fine. 

But why is there nonetheless a shortage of gowns, and why are doctors and nurses dying for lack of them? Three nurses, who had been forced to wear bin bags on their shift because of a shortage of gowns, have contracted coronavirus. Isn’t that disgraceful? 

NHS Providers, which represents all hospital trusts, has warned that supply of gowns is ‘hand to mouth’. Leaked memos warn of a ‘national shortage’ of long-sleeved gowns. 

And, as the Mail reports, 57 per cent of doctors in a survey conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons said their trusts have experienced PPE shortages within the past 30 days. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has issued guidelines to its members saying that if they haven’t been given adequate PPE they can refuse to treat patients. 

Who could blame them? At least 19 NHS workers have died so far, and some relatives believe they were infected due to a shortage of equipment. What has gone wrong? There have been bottlenecks in shipments from China – our main supplier of gowns – so that critical supplies are being held up. 

Sara Trollope (pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year), 51, was just months away from retiring when she became yet another hero to been named a victim of the deadly virus

Now, I’m going to say something which during the present climate – when everyone, including the Prime Minister, now mercifully recovered, is praising the NHS to the skies – may seem controversial. 

The organisation is not perfect. Its doctors, nurses and other workers are exemplary, and we owe them an incalculable debt. But they are not the health service. The NHS – along with its quango little sister, Public Health England – is a vast lumbering and often inefficient bureaucracy. It does not respond quickly to the rapidly developing demands of this cunning virus. 

Already we have seen how cumbersome the NHS has been in grappling with testing, where the daily rate is still far below what experts agree is necessary. This slowness appears to have been at least in part the result of suspicions harboured by health service jobsworths over private laboratories. 

Of course, I can appreciate that proper testing is a complicated issue. It is undeniably true that many other countries have also not covered themselves in glory. But is providing enough basic gowns, and other fairly straightforward PPE equipment, really so much of a challenge for a country that is supposed to have the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world? 

Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, 53, pictured left, passed away in hospital after a 15-day battle against the virus – five days after urging Mr Johnson to make sure staff had ‘appropriate’ PPE

With at least two months’ notice, it surely would have been possible to ramp up the manufacture of gowns in the UK, instead of relying on fardistant China. There have even been appalling stories of health workers cutting up curtains. Slow-footed though the NHS and Public Health England are, the buck stops with Mr Hancock. 

No one envies the Health Secretary in his job at the moment. I’ve no doubt he is working 18-hour days, and doing many good things. But the shortage of PPE equipment is finally his responsibility. 

I’m afraid he was wrong-headed to imply that medics have been wasting equipment. It looks as though he is trying to shift the blame. It is immoral to ask doctors, nurses and other health workers to take bigger risks with their lives than they have to. 

No wonder some of them have said they feel ‘like lambs to the slaughter’. Action is needed. Bottlenecks must be cleared. More gowns and other vital PPE equipment must be found. 

It feels, not for the first time, that no one is fully in charge of this terrible crisis.

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