As the number of people infected with COVID-19 jumps to over 165,000 cases UK-wide, with over 26,000 deaths, the UK government is facing serious criticism over the way it has handled the crisis.
Public health experts have accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of acting “nonchalant”. Others have claimed that the government has failed to provide a coherent response, and ultimately acted with too little, too late. One Labour frontbencher has even accused the government of “[conspiring] to murder and let die British citizens”.
Now, doctors are launching a legal challenge against the government over their lack of action over PPE and poor guidance. They say the government’s inaction has risked their lives, and their patients lives.
Many have said the government has fallen woefully short on its promises to deliver sufficient and safe PPE to NHS workers. At a daily Downing Street press conference last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock outlined that the government had received 8,331 offers of PPE. Further to this, the Minister said the government is “investigating every one” of these offers.
However, despite this claim, Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer has responded by stating that many of these companies have not received a response from the government. As a result they have started “shipping their stuff to other countries”. Correspondingly, The Daily Telegraph reported that weeks ago, 5 million surgical masks and over a million respirators from a UK wholesaler were sent to countries in the EU.
According to the BBC, Telford-based battery maker, AceOn Group, reached out to the government weeks ago, with an offer of 3D parts for ventilators and masks. However, they reportedly received no response. The company commented that there is “too much red-tape in the UK supply chain”.
On 21 April, claims of government incompetence were further substantiated when The Guardian reported that the government had also failed to secure 16 million masks as a result of missed opportunities.
Meanwhile, Britain’s failure to sign up to the EU medical equipment scheme has now come under scrutiny. Simon McDonald, Head of the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign Office speaking to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee said the decision to not take part in the scheme “was a political decision”.
This was later contradicted by Matt Hancock at Downing Street’s daily press conference. Labour MP Chris Bryant, member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has since stated he “feared the government was involved in a full-on cover-up”.
It has also been found by an investigation by BBC Panorama that despite a government pandemic stockpile being set up in 2009, key items were not included. These items included gowns, visors, swabs or body bags. When government advisors recommended filling these gaps, they were ignored. This means that essential supplies were absent when COVID-19 reached the UK.
On top of this, on the 13 March, the government downgraded COVID-19 from a High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID). This occurred on the same day that the government downgraded its guidance on PPE. All of this happened without consultation from the experts who had been advising on the virus from the beginning of the crisis.
The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) were then consulted instead of the experts who originally put COVID-19 on the list of HCIDs. This committee said that the decision to downgrade the virus was made in part as a “pragmatic decision,” because of lack of PPE.
Official guidance released on 17 April by Public Health England (PHE), advised medical professionals on how to deal with PPE shortages. This included using:
Speaking about the insufficient nature of these measures, RCP President, Professor Andrew Goddard, said: “It is now patently clear to everyone that the lack of PPE is the major issue that will limit our ability to fight this virus. These new measures are, at best, a sticking plaster. They will cause consternation among health and social care workers, all of whom are literally putting their lives on the line, as we are sadly all too aware”.
The Royal Nursing College (RNC) agreed with the RCP. The college’s Chief Executive Dame Donna Kinnair called PHE’s guidance “unacceptable” and criticised the organisation for developing it without consulting the college.
Rob Harwood, Chairman of the Consultants Committee at the British Medical Association added: “This guidance is a further admission of the dire situation that some doctors and healthcare workers continue to find themselves in because of government failings”.
Basmah Sahib, a Solicitor at the London law firm Bindmans, is representing Dr Meenal Viz and Dr Nishant Joshi as they launch legal action against the government. On behalf of the couple, Mr Sahib wrote a pre-action legal letter to the Department of Health and Social Care and PHE challenging the official guidance released by the government on 17 April.
In the letter, it is outlined that guidance on PPE is both “inconsistent” and “unclear,” and is subsequently putting NHS workers’ lives at risk. Moreover, the couple have stated that the government is not providing sufficient protection to all NHS workers. While the PHE commented that WHO confirmed the UK was complying with the recommended guidance for high-risk procedures, this refers only to procedures carried out in intensive care units. Subsequently, this is where all the PPE is being concentrated. Dr Joshi commented: “What about my colleagues in maternity units, in A&E or any other department who have become unwell with coronavirus, quite possibly due to prolonged periods of high exposure to the virus?”
Additionally, when speaking to BBC 5Live, Dr Joshi questioned why PPE guidelines had been downgraded: “Was there science used to back that up?” Reflecting on the government’s lack of action he added: “If we were making decisions based on shortages, then why haven’t British manufacturers been mobilised?”
Speaking about the potentially unlawful actions of the government, two lawyers have questioned whether it has broken part of the European Convention on Human Rights. Barrister Stephen Cragg and Solicitor Emily-Jade Defriend, both specialising in human rights, have outlined that under Article 2, the state must protect lives. It must also have “appropriate systems” and “regulatory frameworks” in place to ensure individuals are protected from risks to their lives. The pair outline that if it is found the government has not complied with this, a public investigation must be conducted, and the government must be held to account.
Now that it has been found that the government has failed both the NHS and its citizens, the blame game has begun, and many are calling for Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s resignation. However, what has been revealed is a wider, more systemic problem of governmental incompetence, and the government must answer for the thousands of lives that have been lost as a result of its guidance and lack of resources.