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We must not repeat other countries’ errors

We are repeating other nations’ errors in fighting Covid-19. Key among them is inadequate protection for medical workers, leading to a high infection rate among doctors and nurses.

A lack of understanding of the disease and a shortage of protective equipment in the early weeks of the outbreak in January led to thousands of healthcare workers being infected while treating patients. 

Many of our colleagues in Europe are contracting the disease in their daily practice, and the proportion is quite similar to the earlier situation in Wuhan.

There is a high death rate for medical first responders. Not having the protective kit increases their risk of death, with current data that 8.7% of cases in Italy are healthcare workers.

From Italy to the UK, countries are reporting a shortage of PPE, in hospitals as well as GP surgeries, while the rapidly growing patient load is overwhelming doctors and nurses. 

This week, Pulse revealed that GP practices in many regions of the UK have been supplied with face masks that expired in 2016, covered with stickers reading ‘2021’. Although the Department of Health and Social Care has since deemed them safe, how NHS England allowed this in the first place is beyond me.

The pandemic has now sickened over 170,000 globally and killed over 9,000. While it’s slowed in China – only 21 new domestic case of infection were reported on Tuesday – it’s accelerating in Europe and the US, cutting a particularly deadly swathe in countries like Italy, where the reported mortality rate is significantly higher than China’s.

Italian hospitals now say they’re running out of oxygen, and staff, as more of their own contract the virus. In the UK, cases jumped by 676 in just a day before the last recorded count. Any pretence that we are four weeks behind Italy has now gone.

Any pretence that we are four weeks behind Italy has now gone

There’s a total failure of availability of safe PPE for frontline NHS staff, who are putting their lives at risk to protect the population. The Government must protect them.

The other issue is failure of testing. Does NHS England realise how damaging the current policy of self-isolation without testing is on staffing? The World Health Organisation have a simple message, to ’test, test, test’. If we don’t, we don’t know how many of those people have developed a mild illness, for instance, that’s not enough to warrant a doctor’s visit, but enough to establish that the virus is being passed on. Without testing more widely, we don’t know if those entries into the community have caused chains of transmission. All frontline NHS staff should be tested for Covid-19 as a priority.

The experts who advocated herd immunity to the Government have withdrawn their advice and apologised, after more analysis realised it would cause at least a quarter of a million deaths. Now the UK accept that suppression is preferable, we need to see it follow other countries in Europe in closing its schools.

We must learn from previous mistakes and do the following immediately:

1. Increased testing, and breaking chains of transmission

2. Social distancing, to buy time for the NHS to build capacity

3. Protecting healthcare staff through testing and appropriate PPE 

Dr Kailash Chand OBE is a retired GP in Tameside