'Fearful' frontline nurses seek legal advice over mask shortages and testing

Some nurses in Northern Ireland have instructed a solicitor to contact the health minister over concerns about mask and protective clothing shortages
Some nurses in Northern Ireland have instructed a solicitor to contact the health minister over concerns about mask and protective clothing shortages

A solicitor has revealed she has been contacted by "fearful" frontline nurses seeking legal advice about treating Covid-19 patients without proper masks and protective clothing.

Claire McKeegan said she received "legal instruction" from staff working in two Northern Ireland health trusts to write to health minister Robin Swann seeking "public assurances".

They said urgent provision of kits - known as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - is needed, particularly "full gowns that are disposable, aprons, footwear that can be decontaminated, fluid shields and FFP3 masks".

They also want testing for all staff exposed to suspected and positive coronavirus patients to be prioritised.

The letter, sent to Mr Swann earlier this week, outlines concerns of nurses working in the Belfast and Northern health trusts who are "putting themselves at risk every day they go to work".

A hospital consultant has also contacted Ms McKeegan, of Phoenix Law, as well as a GP.

"Our clients have informed us that they are fearful of their safety in the hospitals due to the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)," the letter states.

Ms McKeegan also details the concerns of workers caring for suspected or "presumptive" cases and who are not given protective kit or even 'scrubs' until the patient tests positive - which can be more than 12 hours later.

The development comes as the British Medical Association yesterday warned that doctors and other healthcare professionals will become "very ill and die" if they don't the have proper access to protective kits.

There are global PPE shortages as much of it is made in China.

Mr Swann and the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride gave assurances yesterday about PPE supplies and testing, saying that trusts are working "hand in hand" to ensure staff who need kits get it and that "it is used in the right way".

Testing is to increase to 1,000 people a day.

"We continue to replenish our stocks from our supply chains and we have also added to that stock from our stockpile," Dr McBride said.

In her correspondence to Mr Swann, Ms McKeegan states her "regret" at having to write to him and says "adversarial litigation on this issue should be avoided at all costs".

"We appreciate that we must all work towards a common goal in fighting Covid-19."

But she outlines concerns that staff are not being provided with PPE unless they are working in the Covid-19 area of the hospital.

"This restriction applies to all health care professionals, including those nurses and doctors who are required to be in close proximity to patients to properly assess them, whether at reception, A&E or on the wards.

"It follows that these essential workers are currently not adequately protected despite the fact that symptoms of Covid-19 may not be exhibited for up to 14 days and are, therefore, at risk of being infectious and able to and able to inadvertently transmit the virus to others."

With coronavirus related deaths of medics rising in the worst-hit countires - 23 Italian doctors have died - Ms McKeegan said the health minister not only had an "ongoing and binding legal duty" to provide PPE but a "moral one".

A department spokesman confirmed the minister had received the letter.