Following on Home Secretary Priti Patel’s notorious April 11 statement on the continued shortages of personal protective equipment for NHS staff dealing with Covid-19 patients, in which she said “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings,” Matt Hancock  the next day also refused to apologise to the staff working in impossible conditions and to the families of the rising number of doctors, nursing, allied health professionals, support staff and social care workers who have died as a result of the pandemic.

The phrase “sorry if people feel” seems to have been devised by lawyers keen to avoid any potential legal liability for the government’s persistent failure to deliver adequate supplies of PPE. The Business Secretary used the same phrase in joining the chorus of refusal to apologise or explain not only the shortages of PPE – for which NHS Providers have belatedly published some details – but the wilful deception of ministers and officials claiming that supplies were plentiful.

As NHS providers CEO Chris Hopson sums up, Hancock has for weeks been “publicly quoting ever-growing figures of how many millions of pieces of PPE are being delivered to the frontline.

It’s three weeks since England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries, told a press conference on March 20, 2020: “The country has a perfectly adequate supply of PPE.” Hopson’s latest article explains clearly that this wasn’t true then, and it’s even less true now.

It wasn’t until April 10 that Hancock belatedly published a Department plan for distribution of PPE – while pointing the finger of blame at staff for “over-using” PPE, which he said they should regard as a “precious resource.”

But while the BMA has been the most outspoken on the issue, arguing that PPE is not being misused, but simply not available, some staff allegedly face bullying and disciplinary action if they complain, and trust bosses maintain a public silence while warning their own staff of shortages.

The death toll of patients and staff is already far higher than it would have been if not for a decade of NHS austerity, refusal to heed warnings of inadequate preparations for a potential pandemic, failure to heed advice from public health experts, the WHO, Italy and China, and ministers prioritising public relations bluster over truthful statements setting out the scale of the problem.

Ministers have ordered millions of tests that don’t work, cancelled orders for thousands of the wrong type of ventilator, dismissed the chance to collaborate with EU countries in bulk ordering PPE, and repeatedly exaggerated their claims to be “ramping up” testing to show and the spread of the virus.

It’s too late to change the past, but we must demand honesty and openness now to prevent yet further unnecessary deaths and suffering. Boris Johnson may be taking a new tone after his days in ICU, but we need a sea-change in government action – starting with a major effort to get PPE to all the key staff that need it.

Neither Matt Hancock nor Chief Nurse Ruth May had bothered to find out the number of NHS staff who had died as a result of the virus when they appeared together in a press briefing on April 11. Hancock handed over to May, and May hid behind the weasel words that it was “inappropriate” to give numbers.

The next day Hancock gave an inaccurate total of 19: since then it has risen fast, and as this pdf version is prepared (April 13) the latest total of NHS and social care staff published in Nursing Notes is 44.

The longer the shortages of PPE persist, the more staff will pay the ultimate price for their dedication to a service that shows them so little respect.

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