Call to bolster PPE standards to protect health staff

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Organisations representing health workers are calling for stricter standards on personal protective equipment (PPE), as some believe that current guidelines fall short of what is needed to protect them from Covid-19.

More than 20 organisations representing health workers, including unions and professional bodies for nurses, doctors, surgeons and paramedics, will meet with government officials to press for higher-grade equipment, the BBC reported.

In the US for example, health workers are required to wear N95 respirator masks, which are widely considered to be more effective at protecting workers than the masks issued in the UK.

Earlier this week Public Health England updated its infection prevention and control recommendations to state that respiratory face masks, such as FFP3 masks, should not be limited to staff in areas where procedures likely to generate aerosols are taking place.

Instead, organisations should undertake risk assessments to consider whether such protections should be used in areas with an “unacceptable risk of transmission” of Covid-19.

While this was an improvement on earlier versions of the guidance, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it fell short of the precautionary approach the union had been advocating.

“Along with many other organisations, we have consistently urged that the health secretary and prime minister provide greater protection for all nursing staff. However, this guidance fails to properly consider the voices of those who were forced to work without protection at the start of the pandemic and act on those lessons,” said RCN acting general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen.

“Advocating a risk assessment with the hierarchy of control is welcome but needs to have considerable support and training for those on the front line to implement effectively.

“As we see new variants of concern emerge, we continue to demand FFP3 masks are made more widely available and increased levels of ventilation as a standardised approach. This is in line with the advice from the WHO [World Health Organisation] and the CDC [Centre for Disease Control and Prevention] on the risk of aerosol transmission.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the new guidelines were a “step in the right direction”.

“Crucially, it recommends that respiratory PPE (such as FFP3 masks) must be considered where the threat from passing on Covid remains high, and should not be limited to those areas where [aerosol generating procedures] (AGPs) are taking place,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair.

“This means extending their use to those staff whose exposure to airborne particles from a patient is no less, and whose risk of contracting Covid is therefore no less than for those engaged in those procedures classified as AGPs .”

He warned it was “important that those working on the frontline should be given stronger guarantees with appropriate PPE”, instead of just surgical masks.

“With the new variant being highly transmissible and more resistant to vaccines, we cannot give the virus any opportunity to spread if we have the means to prevent it,” said Nagpaul.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The safety of NHS and social care staff has always been our top priority and we continue to work tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect those on the frontline.

“PPE recommendations in the updated Infection Prevention and Control guidance are agreed upon by an expert group of clinicians and scientists from across all four nations of the UK, based on the latest clinical evidence.

“Emerging evidence and data are continually monitored and reviewed, and the guidance will be amended accordingly if needed.”

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