THE safety of nurses and their ability to care for people during the coronavirus outbreak is being “fundamentally compromised” because of a persistent lack of adequate personal protective equipment, the Royal College of Nursing has said.

The nursing union claimed in a submission to the Commons Health Committee, which is examining the handling of the pandemic, that the lack of PPE was contributing to fear and anxiety among nurses and, along with the lack of testing, was adding to existing staffing pressures.

But the UK Government insisted it was "working round the clock" to get equipment and support frontline staff needed and had over the last few weeks delivered more than 600 million items of PPE.

The RCN, which is the largest trade union and professional body in the world, representing 450,000 members across the UK, argued there had been an “alarming” focus on ensuring supplies just for NHS hospitals while nurses working in other care settings such as General Practice and care homes had “either no or poor access to PPE and no hand sanitiser”.

Dame Donna Kinnair, the college’s Chief Executive, in a letter to Jeremy Hunt, the former UK Health Secretary, who chairs the committee, said that despite recent UK Government announcements, PPE against Covid-19 was still not reaching the nursing frontlines.

In the letter – released by the committee - she explained: “Our safety and ability to care for patients is being fundamentally compromised by the lack of adequate and correct supplies of vital personal protective equipment[PPE] and the slow and small-scale roll out of Covid-19 testing.

“Our members are facing impossible decisions between their own or their family’s health and their sense of duty. The distribution and adequacy of PPE has led nursing staff to share equipment, buy their own supplies or to reuse single-use PPE.”

Dame Donna pointed out that while there were Government announcements that millions of pieces of PPE were being distributed, they were not reaching the frontline across all health and care settings.

“All staff, in all settings, must have enough supply of PPE that meets the required specifications,” she declared, noting that the RCN was pleased that discrepancies within PPE guidance had been addressed by new UK Government guidance published last week and stressing that "no less than full implementation" of this guidance would do.

In its submission to the committee, the RCN said: “We recognise that governments across the UK, health agencies and other bodies have been working to resolve distribution issues. However, action to mitigate PPE distribution is regarded by our members to have been too slow and not transparent.

“Public commitments have not translated into increases in consistently deployed and accessible stocks of adequate PPE, across all health and care settings, regardless of provider. This has resulted in anxiety and fear at an already challenging time for nursing staff.”

In its submission the RCN said:

*insufficient supplies of PPE had resulted in the equipment available to staff being of an unsatisfactory standard;

*some staff complained that equipment needed to test respirator masks was not available;

*it had called on the Health and Safety Executive to intervene as the provision of insufficient and inadequate PPE was a “direct breach” of NHS guidelines and

*urged priority testing for all NHS staff across the UK.

On testing, Dame Donna said: “Covid-19 testing for all health and care staff symptomatic with possible Covid-19 can no longer be delayed and must be rolled out at pace and scale to ensure that everyone will a role to play in keeping our health and care services going, can be tested.

“This will provide reassurance to staff that their safety is paramount and will also enable staff to be deployed safely and effectively preventing unnecessary self-isolation and worry,” she added.

Downing St today pointed out that 600m items of PPE, including 30m yesterday, had been delivered to NHS trusts during the last few weeks. It has stressed there is a Government hotline for health and social care workers needing extra equipment.

On testing, the latest GB daily number was 14,006, including 9,069 at the 13 drive-through stations, which the Government believes will help it significantly increase the number of tests in the weeks ahead.

This meant, No 10 explained, that the total number of NHS staff who had been tested had topped 20,000.

A spokesman said: “Compared to where we were a week ago, we have been making good progress. Importantly, we have tested over 20,000 NHS staff and their family members. There is more to do. The fact we have 13 drive-through sites on stream shows we are moving in the right direction.”

Last week, Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, set a Government target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. It is estimated there are 500,000 frontline staff in the NHS.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "We are working around the clock to give the NHS and the wider social care sector the equipment and support they need to tackle this outbreak.

"Every single hospital, community pharmacy and ambulance trust has now had a PPE delivery. Yesterday we delivered over 30m items of PPE to NHS Trusts in England, and over the last few weeks, over 600m items of PPE have been delivered, including masks, gowns, aprons and gloves.

"The full weight of the Government is behind this effort and we continue to work closely with industry, social care providers, the NHS, NHS Supply Chain and the Army so all our NHS and care staff have the protection they deserve."