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The lack of a uniformed approach to PPE is costing lives

There will be many salient lessons learned once the coronavirus crisis eventually subsides. One will surely be how our lack of planning and true integration put the lives of carers, pharmacists and even our own staff at risk.

How many times have we been told that healthcare doesn’t work in isolation anymore? And that maximum patient support can only be achieved through liaising with our colleagues in social care, at local authorities and even with the heroic folk who work with health charities.

They plug the gaps in state provision which austerity has created, and they give us a caring, often personalised whole-patient centred approach to those we look after.

And yet what is their reward for doing this?

When it came to the largest post-war health crisis we’ve faced, we left them unprepared and put their lives at severe peril by leaving them pitifully equipped.

I read Pulse’s article ‘Every GP practice now has PPE against coronavirus, says NHS England’ with great interest (and thanks on behalf of everyone in healthcare for keeping us up to date, Pulse!). The date of the article – 23 March – will live long in my memory – when warnings around Covid-19 coming to Britain were first issued in January.

From the many contacts I have in practices throughout the country, I know that what kit, and how to use it, differs dramatically. A mere paper mask, as we’ve endlessly reminded the public, offers little protection outside of a surgical setting. And simply closing a Perspex screen to your patients is hardly an effective safeguard for receptionists, either.

Put their lives at severe peril by leaving them pitifully equipped

But then it could be worse. One of the health charities I support, Lagan’s Foundation, visits homes offering respite support to parents who care for children with severe heart and feeding issues. They found support, including accessing telephone assistance, so difficult that they had to source gloves online and from local shops. Anyone who’s tried to purchase toilet rolls, hand sanitiser and even bread will know how difficult that is.

They have somehow managed to continue their valiant service without the fundraising revenues that events would normally give them, to the same high, safe, robust standard. The children’s parents will be forever grateful, but the fact that Lagan’s were left so shockingly stocked by our authorities is absolutely shameful.

My own charity, Homeless Friendly, also discovered that little was on offer for those desperately trying to bring care to rough sleepers. Until I wrote personally to Boris Johnson, it seemed society had no interest in their plight whatsoever. Remember, this is a group wholly suspectable to infection and whose average life expectancy is just 45.

Where are the extra resources needed for health carers and other volunteers communing with this group? We should have had hygiene kits available for them, robust screening in place and proper protection for those giving of their own time to help.

Anecdotally, I’ve also heard how pharmacists often exposed to coronavirus symptoms have had ‘one mask between them’, which another member of staff was ‘trying to tie properly’. Disgraceful – shorn of equipment, bereft of information, their very lives on the line.

One of the few positives from this crisis is a new-found respect for NHS employees. Trawl social media or watch the news, and the warmth shines through, particularly for the beleaguered A&E medic, the junior doctor and the nurse.

But even the public haven’t connected health with social care. Where is the praise for the worker in the care home? The volunteer at the hospice? The member of the public looking after a parent with dementia? The recognition that receptionists and cleaners at surgeries are a pivotal part of our healthcare system?

And where, in the name of sanity, is the proper PPE that they need to provide their life-caring support?

Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE is a GP partner in Greater Manchester, campaigner for health equalities, and the founder of the Homeless Friendly programme. Follow Dr Chauhan on Twitter @ChauhanZahid