A government minister has vowed the NHS will not run out of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the face of calls for an inquiry into a “grotesque lack of preparation” for the coronavirus crisis.
Simon Clarke, the minister for regional growth and local government, told Sky News the country was “not going to run out” of PPE for healthcare workers despite continued concerns about shortages in hospitals and care homes.
A Royal Air Force transport plane is currently waiting in Turkey to bring 84 tonnes of PPE to the UK, while Mr Clarke also highlighted how 140,000 gowns had recently arrived from Burma.
He said ministers were “doing everything” to source new supplies of PPE “from wherever we can obtain it”.
“The short answer is we will not run out,” Mr Clarke added.
“We’ve already deployed almost one billion pieces of PPE across the UK since this crisis began.
“That’s a formidable amount – it testifies, obviously, to the resources we had in hand but also to our ability to produce more.
“Nobody is saying this is easy to source, and countries all across the world are finding this is a time when it’s in huge demand.
“But we’re not going to run out, we’re making sure that it gets to the front line.
“We recognise that the margins can get tight, but we are confident that we can keep supplying everybody with what they need.”
However, trade union leaders kept up their pressure on the government and promised to support any worker who refuses to continue their duties due to a lack of PPE.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress, warned front-line staff are “being forced to put their health and their lives on the line” every day, as she pointed to reports that at least 100 health and social care workers have died with coronavirus.
She called for the government to “get a grip” in the immediate term and deliver “fewer empty promises and less PR and more action”.
But she also told Sky News an independent public inquiry should be set up before the end of the year “to get to the root of the answer as to why there was this grotesque lack of preparation on protective equipment and how we make sure that never happens again”.
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Nurses have already been told by their union they can, as a last resort, refuse to treat coronavirus patients if they are not given adequate PPE.
And Ms O’Grady pledged to support anyone taking such action.
“As unions we’re here to support those workers and if they say they can’t or won’t work without adequate protection, then of course we will watch their backs and stand by them,” she said.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told Sky News that NHS staff are being put in “an invidious position where they have to choose between their vocation in caring for the sick and the ill and the vulnerable, and protecting their own health”.