Doctors and other health workers criticised the British Government on Saturday for suggesting that gowns used to protect them while treating coronavirus patients could be re-used, as supplies run low across the country.
Rob Harwood, the Consultants Committee Chairman at the British Medical Association – the trade union for doctors – made the criticism.
Britain is at or near the peak of the new coronavirus outbreak, with more than 14,000 deaths.
The country has the fifth highest national death toll of the pandemic linked to at least 150,000 deaths worldwide.
On Friday, the government issued new guidance to hospitals, setting out that alternatives to fluid-repellent full length gowns might need to be used, including reusable gowns or even long-sleeved laboratory coats.
“This guidance is a further admission of the dire situation that some doctors and healthcare workers continue to find themselves in because of government failings,” Harwood said.
“If it is being proposed that staff re-use equipment, this must be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence – rather than availability – and it absolutely cannot compromise the protection of healthcare workers.”
Britain’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is a source of increasing political criticism for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who himself contracted the virus and is recovering.
Health Minister Matt Hancock told a committee of lawmakers on Friday that Britain was “tight on gowns” but had 55,000 more arriving and was aiming to get the right equipment where it was needed by the end of this weekend.
A health department spokesman said the new guidance was to ensure that staff knew what to do to minimise risk if shortages did occur.
The Royal College of Nursing said it had written “in the strongest terms” to express concerns over the rules change, saying it had not been consulted about them.
NHS Providers, a body which represents hospitals and other parts of Britain’s publicly-funded National Health Service, said supply levels of gowns were critical.
“It is now clear that some trusts will run out of fully fluid-repellent gowns this weekend,” Deputy Chief Executive Saffron Cordery said.
The body said China was the only immediately available source of the gowns, meaning there was international competition for supplies.
It also said there had been problems with consignments arriving from China, such as stock labelled as gowns actually containing face masks.