She said there was “exponential” demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the global health pandemic and the Government was working to address this. When challenged at a Downing Street briefing to apologise, Ms Patel said: “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings.” Meanwhile, the row over access to PPE threatened to boil over. Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended himself after he came under fire for telling healthcare workers to treat protective equipment like a “precious resource”. Nurses denied any suggestion they were using more PPE than necessary against Covid-19.
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Royal College of Nursing chief Dame Donna Kinnair said: “I take offence actually that we are saying that healthcare workers are abusing or overusing PPE.”
She said no PPE was “more precious a resource than a healthcare worker’s life, a nurse’s life, a doctor’s life”.
The reality, she said, was that staff did not have the PPE supplies they needed.
The British Medical Association warned last week that supplies in London andYorkshire had reached “dangerously low levels” and Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “insulting” to imply staff were wasting resources.
He said: “There are horrific stories of NHS staff and care workers not having the equipment they need to keep them safe.”
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Mr Hancock said: “I am not impugning anyone who works for the NHS and I think they do an amazing job.
“But what I am reiterating, stressing, is the importance to use the right amount of PPE both to have enough and also to use it as the precious resource that it is.”
Ms Patel said the Government was working to provide PPE for public services, with supply chains for police, fire and prison staff.
She said: “From a policing perspective we’re already out there in terms of making sure we have enough gloves, face masks and a substantial supply chain, with already 1.5 million gloves and masks in the pipeline.”
The Government has unveiled details of a plan to ensure PPE gets to where it is needed most, with a “24/7 military operation” to manage supply and demand.
Major companies including Burberry, Rolls-Royce, McLaren, Ineos and Diageo are making items including gowns, visors and hand hygiene products.
NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said it was “absolutely critical” PPE was distributed to all frontline workers “so that they not only are protected but they feel safe”.
He said the Government was “working night and day to ensure we procure the PPE that we need”.
Prof Powis said it was too early to indicate an end to the lockdown, stressing the UK was “still in round one” of the coronavirus fight. He said the timescale to tackle the disease was more like a marathon than a sprint.
Asked whether restrictions will continue until a vaccine is found, he said: “A vaccine is clearly an important part of any long-term management of this virus, so vaccine development is under way.”
But he warned vaccines take months to develop and have to be proved safe and effective before being manufactured and deployed.
Prof Powis said: “Vaccines are not the only part of an exit strategy.
“What’s absolutely critical at the moment is that we follow the instructions that have been given, we maintain social distancing, because any strategy will require us to get on top of this virus.”
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