After weeks of criticism that personal protection equipment isn't reaching front line health and care workers, Matt Hancock today launched a 'PPE plan' to ensure that gloves, face masks and so on reach hospitals and care homes as quickly as possible. But alongside it, he also issued a curious warning: don't use equipment you don't need. Hosting the Downing Street coronavirus briefing this evening, the Health Secretary said:
'There's enough PPE to go around, but only if it's used in line with our guidance. We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource that it is. That means only using it when there's a clinical need, and not using more than is needed.’
This is in many ways a statement of the obvious, but it's interesting that Hancock felt the need to make it in a public press conference, rather than in the guidance issued to healthcare professionals as part of today's plan. It has certainly not gone down well with the bodies representing these workers: the Royal College of Nursing, for instance, has objected to the suggestion that its members are engaged in 'frivolous' use of equipment rather than the government accepting that the sole problem is a shortage of PPE overall.
Hancock did make clear that the shortage of PPE had been a huge challenge for the government, not least because Britain does not currently have a strong PPE manufacturing industry like some other countries. But his line about the need for appropriate use of equipment does sound rather like shifting the blame for the existing shortages.
Another part of the plan, beyond issuing new guidance on who should be using PPE, is to encourage businesses to help with manufacturing more items of equipment. Hancock praised a number of companies such as Burberry and Rolls Royce which have already done this, and added: 'We are talking to many others and we want more to step up to the plate... We want to hear from you so that we can make this kit here in Britain.'
And he accepted that one of the biggest challenges was distributing the equipment that was available to the right place. He argued that the reason the government was publishing the plan now was 'so that everybody can see the challenges that are there and how we are proposing to overcome them'.
But most workers in hospitals and care homes will relax not when there is a plan, but when they start seeing the equipment that they still need to do their jobs safely arrive.