Doctors are taking legal action to force the UK government to launch an independent inquiry into its failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment for NHS staff and other frontline care workers.
News of the challenge, brought by the Doctors Association UK (DAUK) and the Good Law project, comes as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it was withdrawing a model of protective goggles – “Tiger Eye” protectors – from use because they offered insufficient protection.
A pre-action letter sent to the DHSC says an immediate independent inquiry is essential to ensure sufficient PPE can be made available as soon as possible and to ensure healthcare workers are properly equipped for any second or third wave of Covid-19.
A spokesperson for the Doctors’ Association UK said: “It is a tragedy that nearly 200 healthcare workers in the UK have died due to Covid-19. We had a pandemic stockpile of PPE lacking essential items like full gowns and eye protection; other equipment was out of date. There has been recurrent and systemic failure of the PPE supply chain, leaving staff in some instances with makeshift or no PPE …
“Our action will bring an urgent public inquiry to ensure that lessons are learned, and that families are heard. We need to ensure that no doctor, nurse or healthcare worker is put in harm’s way in this manner ever again, and the families of frontline healthcare workers who have died get much-needed answers.”
Several of those people who died, including Dr Peter Tun, who worked at Royal Berkshire hospital and Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who worked at Homerton hospital in Hackney, east London, had previously warned about the risks posed by a lack of PPE.
Among the failures the claimants allege are an absence of gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when coronavirus reached the UK in February. They also refer to the claims by UK businesses with access to PPE that their offers to help were ignored and to the fiasco surrounding the attempt to source 400,000 protective gowns from Turkey. The order from Turkey was delayed and when it did arrive contained only 67,000 gowns of which only 4,500 were passed as fit for use in the health service.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that of a stockpile of nearly 26m Tiger Eye protectors, 15.9m pairs were distributed in the health system while the remainder were being held in quarantine.
A DHSC spokeswoman said: “The Tiger Eye protectors were bought in 2009 and were in CE marked boxes. These were rechecked, and following these assessments, we have issued an alert to clinical settings advising against their use and we are removing them from the supply chain.
“Based on current stock assessments, trusts should have sufficient visors and goggles to immediately stop using Tiger Eye protection.”
The pre-action letter says the DHSC has a legal obligation under the Human Rights Act 1998 and article 2 of the European convention on human rights to commence an immediate and independent investigation into issues surrounding the procurement and distribution of PPE within both the NHS and wider social care system prior to and during the current crisis.
The government and NHS England initially insisted there was no shortage of PPE, only distribution problems, before the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, admitted last month that there was “short supply” in some areas.
Jolyon Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “We support the government’s efforts to get protective equipment to those risking their lives to protect the sick and vulnerable. But we must never be forced to ask NHS and care home workers to risk their lives again.”