Government ‘dismissed’ concerns over airborne Covid transmission, inquiry told

Senior Royal College of Nursing in Scotland figures said personal protective equipment given to NHS staff was often not adequate.

The Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry has heard evidence from senior figures at the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland
The Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry has heard evidence from senior figures at the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland (Victoria Jones/PA)

The Scottish Government “dismissed” concerns about the airborne transmission of Covid during the pandemic, an inquiry has heard.

Colin Poolman, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Scotland, also paid tribute at the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry to the “ultimate sacrifice” made by health workers who lost their lives in the pandemic.

He told the inquiry that attempts were made from 2020 by the RCN to raise concerns about airborne transmission with the Scottish Government, due to considerations about personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilation.

The virus was eventually deemed to be airborne by the World Health Organisation (WHO), however Mr Poolman said the Scottish Government “did not respond” to concerns and that they were “dismissed in favour of droplet transmission”, despite evidence.

Mr Poolman told the inquiry: “That remains an area of dispute between ourselves and the Scottish Government.”

Senior figures from the RCN told the inquiry the “inadequacy of PPE was staggering”, but alleged an email sent by the chief executive of one NHS health board declared it was “impossible” for medics to get Covid at work due to PPE.

The RCN had called for FF3 masks to be used to protect against airborne risks, and presented a specialist report to the Scottish Government in February 2021 which was “critical” of the guidance at the time, the inquiry heard.

Mr Poolman said he felt “vindicated” when the WHO deemed the virus to be airborne.

He said the RCN is currently dealing with 35 personal injury claims related to long Covid as well as being contacted for support from nurses who face losing their jobs due to the illness, and he called for the nursing profession to be included in pandemic planning in future.

Mr Poolman said: “The inadequacy of PPE was staggering. Members of staff used to reuse PPE that wasn’t designed to be reused.”

The inquiry heard that pre-pandemic, there were 6,000 nursing vacancies in Scotland and many staff were drafted into new areas during the crisis and given masks which failed a “fit test”.

Mr Poolman said: “The evidence absolutely supported airborne transmission. This was too late for those who caught Covid as a result of inadequate PPE.

“Nursing is a predominantly female profession and many nurses were not passing the fit test of what types of masks were available.”

On the health workers who died, he added: “I think it is really important for us never to forget what people gave, individually and collectively.”

Meanwhile, RCN Scotland associate director Norman Provan told the inquiry he received a letter from the chief executive of an NHS board claiming it was “impossible” for nurses to get infected with Covid at work.

Mr Provan said he wrote to every NHS board in Scotland warning of risks of infection at work, and received a letter back which said: “We’re giving people PPE so it’s impossible for them to get it at work.”

A Covid remembrance tree at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, which was cited as an example of good practice regarding PPE during the pandemic
A Covid remembrance tree at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, which was cited as an example of good practice regarding PPE during the pandemic (Andrew Milligan/PA)

However he told the inquiry PPE was variable with some medics handed “essentially repurposed binbags” to use as aprons.

He cited an example of Forth Valley Royal Hospital, where medics in the intensive care unit all had “full PPE” including FF3 masks.

Mr Provan said: “There was only one member of staff off sick with Covid.”

He told the inquiry it was a regret that concerns over airborne infection “weren’t listened to” during the crisis.

Mr Provan said: “We wrote in 2021 almost a year into the pandemic to say there was emerging evidence this wasn’t a droplet infection but an airborne one. They didn’t update the guidance and they never have.

“Bearing in mind we weren’t being listened to, the RCN then commissioned a report. We had experts look at the guidance, they were fairly critical of the guidance. We commissioned a specialist report and we gave the report to the Scottish Government in February 2021, they didn’t respond adequately to it.”

On the nursing workforce, he said: “At the beginning of the pandemic there were about 6,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS alone. Although the Scottish Government tried to encourage people to rejoin, at no point in the pandemic did we have the number of nurses required if there wasn’t a pandemic.

“We know there used to be a healthy number of people who came from Europe to work in the NHS. We have done nothing to domestically train people to replace that.”

He added: “I think learning from the pandemic, there is much that we did which had a positive impact. I think those things should just be adopted. Secure and supply of PPE quite quickly; testing; categorising wards; not swapping staff between clinical areas; supplying everybody with the highest quality of PPE that you can.”

The inquiry, taking place before Lord Brailsford in Edinburgh, continues.