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BBC's Panorama Raises Serious PPE Questions for Government

Health Secretary Matt Hancock continues to insist the government was well prepared for the coronavirus pandemic even as a BBC Panorama investigation reveals serious failings in government planning for the coronavirus pandemic.


In this post-truth era it comes as no surprise that in the face of overwhelming facts, Matt Hancock still tries to defend the indefensible while ignoring the evidence. 


The investigation by the BBC found that the government ignored a warning from its own advisers to buy critical personal protective equipment (PPE) that was not in the country's pandemic PPE stockpile. 

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the government on pandemics, made the recommendation last June that the government purchase gowns, visors, swabs as well as body bags. It appears the recommendation from the group of medical experts had come at a time when populist politicians like Michael Gove, the current Minister for the Cabinet Office, had made it OK to ignore expertise, experience and evidence because "the British people are tired of experts". 

However, unlike the economic consequences from the misinformation presented as a substitute for expertise by Gove and his 'Leave' side during the Brexit debate, the government's cavalier attitude towards expert advice on PPE has inevitably contributed to the demise of front line NHS staff treating Covid-19 patients. Because the government did not heed the advice of the expert group at a time there was less pressure on the global supply chains, the opportunity was missed to purchase adequate PPE. Now items like gowns are one of the PPE items in shortest supply in the UK and it is now very difficult to find supplies of the items because of the global shortage of PPE. The shortage extends to the high-grade FFP3 respirator masks, which are critical in a hospital setting dealing with a highly contagious pathogen like coronavirus. The BBC investigation found that out of the 33 million of the FFP3 respirator masks purchased for the UK's pandemic stockpile in 2009, only 12 million have been distributed. Millions of the masks are unaccounted for and the government refuses to explain where the masks have gone. Two consequential decisions this year appear to underline the government's attitude towards front line NHS staff and PPE. Following a recommendation by the Health and Safety Executive in 2019 that all healthcare workers should wear a gown, FFP3 respirator mask and visor when dealing with High Consequence Infectious Diseases (HCID), government medical experts in January designated Covid-19 a HCID requiring the appropriate PPE. However, on 13 March, the government downgraded its own guidance on PPE, telling NHS staff they were safe to wear less protective aprons and basic surgical masks in all but the most high-risk circumstances.  It appears the government changed its guidance to fit the availability of appropriate PPE and not because there was credible scientific evidence to support a change in the guidance.  Moreover, the investigation found that the government also removed Covid-19 from the list of HCIDs. This was done without consulting the medical experts who had recommended that coronavirus be put on the list in the first place.  This comes across as a devious attempt by the government to give itself legal cover because of its failings in preparing for the pandemic and subsequently sending front line NHS staff to tackle the infection without the appropriate PPE.

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