Coronavirus: Doctors ‘told not to discuss PPE shortages’

Clinical staff wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as they care for a patient at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.Image copyright
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Some NHS managers have tried to stop doctors speaking publicly about shortages of personal protective equipment, the BBC has been told.

WhistleblowersUK said more than 100 healthcare workers had contacted them since the beginning of March, raising concerns about Covid-19 and PPE.

The Department of Health said no one should be prevented from speaking up.

But Newsnight has seen evidence of pressure being applied to doctors to not share concerns they have about PPE.

A newsletter sent out to staff at one trust suggested subjects for tweets, such as thanking staff for their hard work, paying tribute to retired NHS staff who had returned to the workforce and retweeting posts from the trust’s account.

It specified that staff were to avoid “commenting on political issues, such as PPE”.

Another trust put up posters in hospital staff areas which told healthcare workers not to “make public appeals for equipment, donations or volunteers”.

‘Stop causing a fuss’

One doctor who had posted concerns about PPE shortages online spoke to BBC Newsnight anonymously, for fear of reprisal from his hospital.

“They hauled me up in front of a panel of senior managers – it was very, very intimidating”, he said.

“They kept on feeding me what felt like government type of lines, saying ‘this hospital has never had PPE shortages’ – which I know to be factually untrue. And that essentially I should stop causing a fuss.

“There have been colleagues who’ve died at my hospital. And there have been a handful more who’ve been in ICU (intensive care units).

“It’s very, very concerning that we can’t even say our colleagues have died, please don’t let us be next.”

Another doctor told the programme they were called into a meeting with senior NHS managers after speaking to the press about a lack of PPE.

They said they were told by their manager that if they continued to speak out they would get a “reputation” and “find it hard to get a job at that trust or others in the region”.

The doctor said: “I was told we need positive messaging that suggested everyone in the NHS is working very hard, we are doing our best in the pandemic. I was told this is what we need to be putting out, not negative stories.”

‘System is completely broken’

Dr Jenny Vaughan, law and policy lead at campaigning organisation Doctors’ Association UK, said their concerns “weren’t listened to properly”.

“These are people who had tried the right channels. These are people genuinely raising concerns who went to the people who should have listened to them and felt either they couldn’t raise a concern or they weren’t listened to.

“If you have a transparent, open culture of reporting and people feel free that they can speak up about safety concerns, it saves lives”.

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WhistleblowingUK is a not-for-profit organisation that helps people who want to make anonymous disclosures.

“The system is completely broken,” said Georgina Halford-Hall, its chief executive.

“What we see time and time again in the evidence that comes back is that when an individual has raised a concern it goes straight to HR, who immediately begin to investigate the whistle-blower and look for things that they’re doing wrong rather than looking at the actual issues that they’re raising.

“The default position is an auto-immune response against the whistle-blower, and not – absolutely no intention whatsoever – to investigate or look into the allegations that they make.”

Conservative MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, Mary Robinson, said: “If we don’t listen to the concerns of people on the front line we don’t have the right tools to deal with issues like PPE shortages”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Whistleblowers perform a vital and courageous service in ensuring safe care, and no one should ever be prevented from speaking up or discriminated against if they do.

“Freedom to Speak Up Guardians are now established in every NHS trust in England to ensure workers who speak up are listened to, thanked and supported, and they have handled over 19,000 cases in the last two years.”

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