Almost 100,000 angry people have signed an open letter to Boris Johnson demanding a public inquiry into NHS staff deaths and appalling shortages of personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 crisis.
At least 150 health and care workers have now died fighting the pandemic – and campaigners and charities want the Prime Minister to make a firm commitment for a probe once the battle is won.
The open letter, compiled by The Doctors’ Association UK, comes after polling showed one in five frontline medics have been given unusable PPE.
And it follows the latest PPE disaster for the Government as surgical gowns in a promised shipment of 400,000 pieces of kit from Turkey failed safety tests.
The letter, signed by 96,000 as of tonight, states: “Doctors are dying. Nurses are dying.
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“This is unforgivable. We need a commitment to this now, with a full judge-led inquiry once the Covid-19 crisis is over.
“It is also crucial coroners open inquests into each healthcare worker death in addition to a public inquiry. This will ensure evidence is preserved and each death is properly investigated.”
But the Chief Coroner has warned that verdicts of inquests on NHS staff deaths will not address PPE supply problems.
In guidance, Mark Lucraft QC said while inquests could consider failures in the workplace which may have contributed to deaths – including lack of PPE – they are not the right forum to address national shortages and supply issues.
The vast majority of our 26,000 virus deaths will not require an inquest as rules class them as the “natural progression of a naturally occurring disease”.
Top QC Theo Huckle, one of the open letter’s signatories, said an inquiry on “the greatest sacrifice possible by those who have worked so selflessly to protect us” is vital.
But he also stressed coroner’s inquests are vital in letting bereaved families be heard and get answers.
Mr Huckle said: “At this terrible time for the bereaved families of the lost frontline workers, it is vital they are reassured they will be given access to justice to understand how they suffered their loss.
“Undoubtedly, a public inquiry will be required at the end of this pandemic.
“But as we can see from the ongoing Grenfell Tower and child abuse enquiries, these can be extremely slow and most importantly they do not permit the families their own representation and the ability to ask the questions they need answered.
“That is what the coroner’s inquest so successfully achieves and we only have to look at the success of the full Hillsborough inquest to see that.”
Deb Coles, director of charity Inquest, which campaigns on state-related deaths, added: “Both Inquest and its lawyers group are deeply concerned about the Chief Coroner’s guidance. Inquests can play a vital role in ensuring deaths of healthcare workers can be properly scrutinised.
“Until a public inquiry is called, bereaved families must look to coroners to open investigations so evidence can be preserved.”
The Mirror’s Protect Us campaign is demanding proper PPE for all key workers. Channel 4 News reported on Thursday that 45% of 20,000 boxes of PPE in the Government’s stockpile had expired when the crisis began and had to be re-tested.
It claimed 80% of 26 million stockpiled respirators were out of date.
The Health Care Supply Association said it was aware of several deliveries sent from the Government’s central supply chain that were “followed by calls for them to quarantine or not use the PPE as it does not meet minimum standards”.
The Government ordered its latest PPE shipment from Turkish T-shirt firm Selegna Tekstil, with thousands of items now deemed “useless” and lying in a warehouse near Heathrow.
Only 67,000 of the 400,000 gowns have been transported to the UK. Of these, 2,400 failed tests, 4,500 passed and the rest are being assessed.
Around 170,000 more are reportedly still in Turkey, after officials blocked delivery over safety fears.
And polling by DAUK raised fears faulty face masks and surgical gowns are still being delivered to hospitals.
Chair Dr Rinesh Parmar said: “It is vitally important these challenges are seen as an opportunity to learn.
“We need to ensure no healthcare worker is put in harm’s way in this manner again and the families get answers. [We have] been lobbying to ensure coroner’s inquests are commenced in every healthcare worker death. This will facilitate the preservation of evidence for a full public inquiry or future legal action.” As well as being criticised for neglecting stockpiles, the Government was slammed for being slow to use – or even ignoring – firms that offered to source or make PPE.
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The NHS was forced to change guidance, telling staff to re-use single-use items as supplies ran out.
The Mirror told how desperate staff made gowns out of curtains and used B&Q items to create masks.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced a partnership with firms including Amazon, the Royal Mint, Jaguar Land Rover and eBay to help get more kit to the front line.
He said 200 potential manufacturers have been identified.
Mr Hancock added: “We are now working with over 1,000 businesses and establishing a British manufacturing base, which will see tens of millions of extra items of PPE delivered in coming weeks alone.”