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The most recent Panorama report featuring progress on treatment and vaccines struck a positive note with: “Coronavirus, When will we be safe?” However, last week’s Panorama was a real shocker, convincing me that the situation in the NHS and Care Sector is far worse than any of us had imagined as Tory complicity in the scandal of blunders, cherished ignorance and neglect is laid out in grim detail in this Panorama special entitled: “Has the Government failed the NHS?” The warnings were clear, but despite plenty of time to take decisive action and fully prepare that opportunity was needlessly squandered, “leaving staff on the Covid ward frightened for their lives.” Information on the program content stated that; “Doctors and nurses have been warning for weeks that they don’t have enough protective kit to stay safe. So has the government let down the health workers leading the fight against the coronavirus? Reporter Richard Bilton investigates the delays and mistakes that may have put the lives of NHS staff at risk.”
A Professor John Ashton, an outspoken critic of the Government, stated emphatically that: “there was no excuse for not having adequate stockpiles to support the country when it faces a desperate crisis like this.” The presenter Richard Bilton began by stating that “the Government downgraded protection standards as the virus swept the country” The program started with the personal story of a thirty year tenure NHS A&E Nurse called Felix, who was now fighting for his life on a ventilator. Felix had felt unsafe due to the lack of PPE available to staff on shift, now four weeks in, he was highly likely to die. The program featured interviews with a number of intimidated NHS staff who felt compelled to come forward and expose the disgraceful truth. The Tory Government’s wilful abandonment of the NHS lies in stark contrast to their public displays of support for staff cheered on, clapped and showered with accolades for their heroic efforts, but abandoned in their hour of need to become infected and die.
The Government claims that a billion items of PPE have been delivered, which sounds impressive until you are informed of the reality behind that large number. Bilton discovered that the PPE kit that was counted included a lot of items that would not be a part of the vital protective clothing, things like cleaning equipment, waste bags, detergent and paper towels were lumped into the mix. In an obscure perversion of the accounting, although he said “more than half of the items are surgical gloves, where each individual glove is counted rather than pairs.” The second biggest item is the plastic apron that offer such limited protection that yesterday I remarked that the army test team might as well have been sent into the fray wearing a “pink ballet tutu!”
In his examination of the number of PPE items sent to each Hospital trust he uncovered the paltry numbers, “the Government delivered 360 gowns across the whole mid and south Essex Trust where Felix had worked – spread out across all the Hospitals that was pitiful. Bilton declared that: “The World Health Organization says those working with Covid 19 patients should wear a gown, gloves, face mask, and eye protection.” The focus of the film crew shifted to display a diverse array of homebuilt and donated equipment coming from the concerned community. What was needed were tight-fitting goggles, but local people had dropped things off and they were grateful. There are some interesting images posted online of NHS staff wearing homemade kit from bin bags to swimming goggles. Frontline Doctors speak out, worried about the kit that is running out as the virus can kill.
Bilton reminds us that: “a Pandemic is not an unexpected event for almost a decade it has been identified as the greatest threat to Britain.” Governments have been preparing for years; there was a brief public infomercial showing plans based on a severe flu outbreak. Like flu Covid is a potentially deadly disease with higher hospitalization rates very similar for both diseases. To be ready you need to stockpile; once it hits every country with the disease is clamouring for the same kit. A 2009 list of what is needed included a gown, the best type of face mask, and eye protection. The film crew cut to a warehouse in Derbyshire informing us that: “the Government says that having a stockpile is a very high standard but there is a problem with what has been bought.”
Bilton, the presenter, goes on to highlight what was not purchased for stockpiling as they: “didn’t buy any Hospital gowns at all!” Panorama discovered that: “just last year the Government’s own advisors warned that gowns were needed in the stockpile, but still none were bought.” The focus returned to the comments of Professor John Ashton who said, “there was no excuse, we need everything to protect against this kind of virus, its breathtaking that there were no gowns at all in stock, breathtaking!”
Panorama discovered: “it was not just gowns taken off the shopping list there the Government also failed to buy other essential items that would be needed in a Pandemic. They didn’t buy any visors at all; there were no swabs either which makes testing for the virus more difficult and the Government didn’t buy a single body bag despite the fact that they were supposed to be preparing for a Pandemic!” Panorama then uncovered that millions of respirator masks have gone missing. Although there were 33 million of these masks listed on the original stockpile only 12 million were handed out and according to their inquiries “the Government refuses to explain where the missing kit went.” The Government says swabs and body bags were not recommended and surgical gowns will be included for future stockpile.
The deadly consequence of this shortfall was the the Government were sending in staff not equipped to stay safe. All was not lost, Bilton described the ongoing disaster: “despite years of not getting the stockpile right when Covid appeared we still had time. At the start of Febuary the European Centre for Disease Control issued a warning: they advised us how much we needed to buy. The document says we need respirator masks, eye protection, gowns and gloves for the most serious cases; 20 sets of PPE per patient per day!” Agoristsa Baka, from the European Centre fo Disease Prevention and Control stated that: “February when we started seeing the big outbreaks in Europe, so actually February was our month to prepare. These four weeks were crucial.” Bilton asked: “What would be the implications if you did not take advantage of that 4 weeks of planning.” Baka said: “there would be devastating”
Panorama stressed that; “the Government has been accused of failing to act quickly enough, here’s the kind of opportunity we missed.” The film crew visited a factory in Bolton that makes the protective fabric needed to make specialist PPE gowns and masks, but they weren’t approached by the Government in February and in March the Company offered their services. They spoke with Thomas Hunt, Managing Director at TLX who said: “I’ve personally written to the Government, written to PMs and also written to Public Health England, at this stage we haven’t really had a response.”
Panorama filmed ten days after the company offered to help the UK, but they still hadn’t heard back. Hunt pointed to his machines saying: “this order is for the United States. Currently that line is running for about five to six days a week and the capacity 80-90% is being bought by America; essentially Trump is buying this UK capacity! Obviously we want to support the NHS if possible, but that’s where this material goes.” Bilton concluded that: “the factory is finally now providing material for the NHS through a private supplier, but in the missing weeks it could have provided enough material for almost 300,000 gowns. The Government has delivered just over 1.3 million gowns during the entire Covid crisis, but the NHS needs hundreds of thousands of gowns a day and the Government is not getting close to that.”
According to what had been discovered by the Panorama team so far: “the Government failed to appreciate the enormity of what was coming our way at the end of January, they failed to get a grip, they took advice from too narrow a range of people and when things continued to escalate out of control they started to spin the story to make out that actually they had been following the science and everything that they did made perfect sense.” I think it’s disgraceful Bilton interjected, “the Government says its had 9000 offers of assistance which are being prioritized for larger companies. It says there are shortages of PPE across the world and it is doing everything to increase our stock levels. It delivered 183,000 gowns last Friday.” According to one healthcare worker this was unprecedented but not unexpected.
But wait there’s more… Panorama say: “it looks like we did not stockpile the right kit and we didn’t react quickly enough so NHS workers were let down.” Amid pictures of clapping and cheering the presenter continues: “We are now a nation in lockdown our health service is at the heart of the nations fight against the disease. This public demon of support means a lot to those who work in the NHS, but some of them are worried that this outpouring of emotion helps the Government gloss over the shortages that are on some of the wards.” As one Intensive Care Nurse said to us, “calling us heroes just makes it OK when we die!” The Panorama team noted that: “many frontline staff are angry with the government, some say there’s a gap between what they hear is coming and what they see on the wards.”
They report a huge mismatch; an A&E Doctor reports on what remained when he got to work: “just four gowns left…it was pathetic.” We are told that: “when there’s a shortage of gowns the staff use plastic aprons. The Government says short sleeves are better for hand hygiene and that long-sleeved gowns can carry their own infection risk.” The A&E Doctor opens up a flimsy plastic apron, describing it as something you might expect the dinner lady to wear; he dons it and declares that it does nothing. According to the Panorama team: “the Government has denied the shortage of PPE and declares that they have brought in a whole new distribution network and bought in the army to sort it out.”
Bilton said they had “spoken to a number of heads of procurement at NHS trusts.” No one wanted to be identified but the supply chain still isn’t working. They had said that: “there is a complete lack of transparency from the Government, they are creating panic as we don’t know if they can supply us. We are scrambling to get it elsewhere. We have been told not to talk about the shortages outside of meetings and calls they don’t want people to know how bad it is. The sup chain is erratic unpredictable and incompetent we might ask for 10,000 gowns and be sent 5,000 aprons. Were the ones getting a call in the middle of the nights because staff are desperate. Were the ones getting out of bed to find gowns and masks.”
Panorama reminded us that: It’s not just Hospitals, GPs also need PPE. Although the massive deficiencies in the paltry amount of PPE available to Care workers was not the focus of the Panorama special we know that this is probably the worst affected area of Healthcare. The WHO says everyone dealing with Covid patients should have the full kit. A Doctor featured by the Panorama team said supplies were very limited they had bought their own PPE for the Surgery on Merseyside in a Covid hotspot, was this “hotspot” status a result of the Madrid football fans who attended a game that the Government should have cancelled? The Tory Government says GP Surgeries only need a plastic apron and a basic surgical mask, but Doctors don’t believe that. People in healthcare losing their lives and being put at risk keeps the Doctor awake at night; he said he, “wouldn’t work without PPE treating Covid patients and I will not ask that of his staff either.”
Panorama investigated the Government guidance telling people what PPE they should wear. It seems the rules have changed due to the shortages. They said: “in January the Gov designated Covid 19 what is called a High Consequence Infection Disease the Health and Safety Executive had already investigated what PPE was needed when tackling a High Consequence Infection Disease it concluded all staff should wear a respirator face mask, full face visor and a gown; gloves are not listed as they are standard in all cases. The Government has a legal obligation to make sure that NHS staff have the right kit. But six weeks ago the Government downgraded Covid 19 the most consequential disease of the last 100 years was taken off the list of High Consequence Infection Diseases.”
These are the recommended PPE components: apron, alcohol hand rub, gloves. Panorama noted that: “at the same time the virus was downgraded, the Government weakened the guidelines on PPE health workers were now told they were safe to wear the less protective aprons and surgical masks in all but the most dangerous situations.” They speculate that: “this must have been done because they realized they weren’t going to have enough equipment and they needed somehow to have a story that stacked up with actually being caught out on supplies.” They say: “Should Covid 19 be on that list? Covid 19 is the biggest infectious disease to hit this country in the last 100 years. Why on earth shouldn’t it be in the most serious category of classification?”
Panorama report that: “the official reason for the downgrading was that there was now a lab test for the virus and Covid 19’s mortality rate was low overall. The Government told us that scientific evidence evolves and plans are adapted accordingly. Removing the disease from the list was backed by a scientific committee,” but sources on that committee told Panorama that it had to be in part a pragmatic decision based on the availability of PPE. That is certainly the view of some on the ward. Guidelines are not about keeping them safe but making do with the shortage of PPE. PPE needs to be rationed now.
There were a number of heart-rending comments from staff who fear they or one of their colleagues will die due to this lack of PPE. The Government says it has: “taken the right steps at the right time” and “has been guided at all times by the best scientific advice…it has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus and to protect our NHS and save lives.” But, Panorama emphasize that: “as it stands in A&E and Covid wards have been issued protective kit that is not as good as what the WHO recommends.”
Reporting on the progress of stricken A&E Nurse they had featured at the beginning of the program they said: “Felix is still fighting for his life.” Panorama ended with a montage of NHS and Care staff who had died of Covid 19 as Bilton noted that: “so many NHS staff have already died while trying to protect us from the disease. Covid 19 will be with us for months; how many lives will be lost because of the scandalous shortage of PPE?”
We cannot allow the growing number of positive initiatives from the scientific community, scrambling to find treatment alternatives and produce a vaccine, to paper over the cracks that are developing into yawning chasms of logistical deficiency with regard to PPE supplies. The Government is now trying ban NHS Trusts from making any attempt to source PPE separately despite their unacceptable failures and lack or reliability so far. The plan will channel all purchasing through Tory preferred private providers who secured approval in uncontested bidding processes that favoured all the usual powerful Corporations already notorious for sopping up Government contracts in the advancing privatization of our NHS. Covid 19 is being manipulated to create a bonanza for the wealthy and a power consolidation for the Tory elite.
While the rapid creation of the impressive Nightingale Hospitals, full of costly high-end equipment, provided a massive money making opportunity for the Tory’s Corporate donors, Covid 19 deaths among NHS and Care staff have now surpassed 200, due in part to lack of PPE. These lower cost basic supplies were not seen as worthy of investment on behalf of the “expendable cannon fodder” frontline workers. Weeks after opening with a potential capacity for 4000 patients the Nightingale is transferring its last 20 patients in order to close, but sadly NHS staff are still not adequately protected caring for the sick and dying. Profits will continue to be prioritized over people under warped, rudderless Tory leadership. We must fully investigate the Covert 2019 Rigged Election that gifted the Tories their fake “landslide victory;” this is our only chance we still have to end the corruption and the carnage by removing them from office.