Dr. Meenal Viz cut a solitary figure as she staged a one-woman protest outside the prime minister’s Downing Street residence. She held a hand-lettered placard bearing a simple message: “Protect Healthcare Workers.”
But she wasn’t truly alone. Four weeks after the British government ordered most people to stay indoors to slow the spread of the coronavirus, health care workers across the country complain they still do not have enough masks, face shields, gowns and other protective equipment. Hospital officials have threatened to discipline workers if they do not stop publicizing the problem, they say.
Health care workers worldwide have reported similar shortages, but the frustration is heightened in Britain because of the revered position held by the National Health Service, which has provided medical care for free since 1948. Physicians complain that government action does not seem to match the rhetoric of politicians who laud NHS doctors and nurses for risking their lives to treat the sick. The failure of a shipment of some 400,000 surgical gowns to arrive as promised over the weekend was only the latest disappointment.
Viz refused to be silent after the deaths of at least 27 NHS employees — a figure the government acknowledges is certain to grow. One death hit close to home: Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, a 28-year-old London nurse who died after her baby was delivered by emergency caesarean section. Viz, 27, is six months’ pregnant.
“It’s affecting our work as doctors because we show up on a daily basis to fight for our patients, and if we’re given the right protection, we will run a marathon for them. But … we don’t have that support,” she said. “We are stuck in a dilemma, a moral dilemma. How much can I help my patient? But I also need to help myself as well.”
Some doctors and nurses are relying on donated goggles designed for school science projects, handmade masks and equipment purchased at home-improvement stores, according to the Doctors Association UK, which lobbies on behalf of front-line doctors.
Nurses report holding their breath during some procedures for fear that flimsy masks will not shield them from the virus, the association said.