DAUK in The Observer Editorial: our message to Boris Johnson on Westminster

Last week, Dr Peter Tun died from coronavirus at the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading, where he had worked for more than 20 years. His son has reported that he had complained about personal protective equipment (PPE) being reallocated from the ward on which he worked and that at least four patients on that ward later tested positive for Covid-19. “The thought that if only he had a proper protective mask, he might still have been able to enjoy his hard-earned retirement after a lifetime of service just kills me,” his son said on Thursday.

It should haunt us all. Tun is one of at least 55 people working in the NHS who have lost their lives to Covid-19; the true number is likely to be higher, and the number that includes care home and homecare staff even greater still. Every day, medical staff report having to work without adequate protective equipment that would minimise the risk to other patients and to themselves and their families. And on Friday night, it became apparent that Public Health England guidance that stipulates the protective equipment doctors and nurses need to wear when treating patients with Covid-19 has been watered down in the face of national shortages. Staff are now being told to wear flimsy plastic aprons in place of full-length waterproof gowns when the latter run out, a situation many NHS trusts are expected to face this weekend.

There are global shortages of PPE, most of which is sourced from countries such as China, where production has dramatically slowed as a result of the lockdown there. This means that ensuring an adequate supply would always have required finding ways to kickstart domestic production as well as coordinating with other countries to try to expand global production, rather than simply competing for scarce supplies on the open market. There is little evidence that this has been happening behind the scenes and there are few signs that lessons have been learned from other serious errors that the government has made in responding to this pandemic, from its hapless efforts to get extra ventilators manufactured to its slow-off-the-mark attempts to expand testing capacity.

Last week, the campaign group Led by Donkeys [with DAUK] projected on to the Palace of Westminster footage of NHS workers imploring the prime minister to address the shortages in personal protective equipment. “The NHS saved your life, now we need you to save ours” was the heartfelt plea. No one doubts that ministers want to prevent doctors and nurses needlessly dying on their watch. But, set against a deadly virus that is claiming the lives of our loved ones, good intentions are just not enough.