The government is facing a litany of criticism over what many have called a botched job at sourcing and delivering desperately needed PPE to frontline health and care workers, while also breaking promises over the roll-out of testing.
The criticism comes as the death toll of NHS workers who have died after contracting coronavirus has exceeded 100 and continues to climb.
Today (April 21) it emerged that the first of three RAF flights to Turkey to pick up a consignment of PPE including 400,000 surgical gowns did not leave until Monday (April 20) — a day later than it was supposed to. The Guardian reported that there is only a ‘slim’ chance of the shipment arriving today.
According to the government, a further 140,000 gowns have arrived from Burma but the NHS has highlighted this is nowhere near enough the number needed given the health service uses about 150,000 gowns each and every day.
British manufacturers ignored
Meanwhile, it was also revealed today (April 21) that millions of pieces of PPE from British manufacturers are being shipped to Europe after the government has turned down offers from these makers to supply PPE locally.
In a bombshell expose, the Telegraph found that domestic manufacturers of PPE have reported being left with “no choice” but to sell the protective kit to countries like Italy, Spain and Germany because the government has failed to respond to their offers.
Labour MP Rachel Reeves confirmed that she had been told by ‘lots of firms’ that they have received no government response on their offers to supply PPE to UK hospitals.
In a letter to Cabinet Officer Michael Gove, Reeves wrote that it was “concerning that the government has not been taking advantage of [PPE offers from British manufacturers].
“I was particularly concerned to hear industry fears that the government had favoured engaging with major fashion and clothing brands for the production of PPE, over companies that may have been better placed to manufacture what is needed as quickly as possible,” she added.
A businessman from Cheshire reported that his offer to produce 450 visors per day, which adhere to government standards, has been totally ignored.
Paul Dodd told the BBC had spent £8000 on the materials and wages to produce the visors but has been forced to stop producing any more after failing to get any response from the government. He has already supplied 2,300 visors to local hospitals and said he has 1,300 stockpiled ready to be delivered.
The lack of engagement with British PPE manufacturers has cast doubt over whether the government is truly, as chancellor Rishi Sunak said earlier this week, “exploring every possible option” and “working round the clock” to supply health workers with protective kit such as gowns, masks and gloves.
PPE tsar appointed
On Monday (April 20), Unite welcomed that the government had heeded Unite’s call to appoint an official with special responsibility for PPE. The new PPE tsar is former London Olympics chief Lord Deighton.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said Lord Deighton “will lead a singular and relentless focus on PPE as the country’s top manufacturing priority, with the full weight of the government behind him”.
McCluskey welcomed the appointment of the special PPE tsar.
“With the appointment of Lord Deighton, I sincerely hope that the shortcomings in PPE supply of recent weeks can be rapidly overcome so that our workers can feel that they are being cared for while they care for us. It is quite clear from the distressing reports of NHS staff going without the equipment that they need that there is not a minute more to be wasted,” he said.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed as he called on the government to take action.
“It is very concerning to hear that British manufacturers, who stand ready to deliver on the PPE and testing kits so urgently needed by both frontline health and care workers and others at work across our economy, are being ignored by government, with some reporting they have no option but to sell the protective kit abroad,” he said.
“For weeks now Unite has been tirelessly working together with manufacturers to support them in planning a national effort to produce and supply the PPE demanded by those putting their own health – and sadly too often their lives – at risk to help us.
“All we need now is coordinated government leadership which is so far desperately lacking,” he added. “We welcomed that the government has heeded Unite’s call and appointed Paul Deighton with special responsibility for PPE but this will only be effective if it leads to quick, urgent action across government.
“We stand ready with an army of workers across UK manufacturing who are eager to get to work producing life-saving protective kit. Our message to the PPE ‘tsar’ Lord Deighton is this – we’re ready when you are so please be in touch.”
McCluskey went on to highlight Unite’s calls for a cabinet-level appointee for testing as well.
“The government has to get that right in order to give working people the confidence that this deadly virus has been brought under control,” he said. “I urge them to heed this call also.”
The call comes as the government has been again criticised for its failure over widespread testing -which, barring the development of a coronavirus vaccine which could be a year or more away – could be the only safe route out of the UK-wide lockdown.
Serious doubts have been raised over health secretary Matt Hancock’s pledge to test 100,000 people per day for the virus by the end of the month. The latest official figures have shown that just short of 20,000 tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 9am on Monday (April 20).
A No. 10 source told the Daily Telegraph that Hancock’s 100,000 people-a-day testing pledge ‘could come back to bite him’. It has also been reported that many of the more than two dozen drive-through testing centres dotted across the UK have been virtually empty because they are spread too far apart, with exhausted staff not able to drive to them easily.
While Unite continues to demand action on PPE and testing, the union has urged the government to understand that lives are being lost each and every day that they fail to act.
Speaking to the BBC, Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe highlighted that health workers are putting their lives on the line.
“It is the right of every single worker in this country not to put themselves at risk of injury or hazard if they’re going to work,” he said, noting that the latest PPE guidance is essentially asking NHS workers to do exactly that – put themselves at risk.
Demanding that Hancock ‘consider his position’, he added, “Too many NHS workers have lost their lives as a result of this pandemic and unfortunately a big proportion of those people have been from black and Asian ethnic minority [communities]. It’s time for the government to sort this out.”
By Hajera Blagg @hajeranblagg