‘A matter of life or death’: Nurse scared to work on ward in 'basic mask'

Hospital staff on one of five Covid-19 wards at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside where patients are ta

Psychological support is being organised for staff at the trust, as one nurse said colleagues were quitting due to stress and exhaustion. Stock image. - Credit: PA

A frontline nurse has revealed the prospect of working on Covid wards “terrifies” them, as NHS workers continue to treat coronavirus patients using standard surgical masks. 

The medic, who works at Ipswich Hospital, says several colleagues are off sick this time around with some even receiving hospital treatment. One nurse died at the hospital over Christmas. 

Almost 1,000 employees - around 10% of all workers at Ipswich and Colchester hospitals - are currently off sick and more than half of those absences are down to Covid-19, according to the latest NHS data.  

ESNEFT is to restrict visitors amid fears of spreading coronavirus Picture: RACHEL EDGE

ESNEFT is to restrict visitors amid fears of spreading coronavirus Picture: RACHEL EDGE - Credit: Rachel Edge

Some 100,000 NHS staff are off sick nationally and the new variant has sent admissions skyward – sparking urgent calls by unions for higher-grade FFP3 masks to be rolled out as standard.  

Government chiefs say FFP3 masks are advised during aerosol procedures (such as resuscitation and intubation), adding that current national PPE advice, decided on by England’s four chief medical officers, is under constant review. 

The Ipswich Hospital worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said they and many colleagues feel unsafe wearing the nationally-recommended standard grade mask, gloves and plastic apron in the face of the new variant - and a surge of sicker patients. 

Our three main hospitals all said they are following national guidance, with PPE “rigorously checked” to meet safety standards. 

But the nurse claimed: “The numbers of healthcare workers contracting Covid-19 this time around is proof enough that they are not being adequately protected. This is literally a matter of life and death. 

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“It doesn’t feel safe to wear these basic masks, we need the higher-grade FFP3 to be used on the wards. It’s really scary.” 

Another nurse said colleagues are resorting to bringing in their own FFP3 masks, which Ipswich and Colchester bosses said they actively discourage for “safety and infection control reasons”. 

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt, after receiving concerns from hospital employees over PPE, has pledged to follow the issue up with the care minister. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said national PPE advice is consistent with WHO guidance for protecting health and social care workers from Covid-19. 

Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) in intensive care. In non-intensive wards, staff are only...

Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) in intensive care. In non-intensive wards, staff are only given surgical masks to wear. - Credit: PA

They added: “The safety of NHS and social care staff has always been our top priority and we continue to work round the clock to deliver PPE that helps protect those on the frontline.” 

In December, a further eight types of FFP3 mask were made available to NHS trusts taking the total to 16. Each must be fitted successfully and the department said each hospital can select the percentage of masks required. 

Giles Thorpe, chief nurse at Ipswich and Colchester hospitals, added: “Keeping our staff safe is one of our top priorities and we have shared detailed advice with all colleagues about what PPE they need to wear in clinical settings, including the use of FFP3 masks, which is in line with national guidance.” 

Ventilate now

The Royal College of Nursing’s eastern regional director, Teresa Budrey, said that the Government must also initiate a review of the effectiveness of ventilation in health and care buildings.  

There are concerns locally and nationally about if an increased number of airborne infections can be put down to poorly ventilated areas.  

“Staff need the answers to deal with the current pressures with confidence,” said Ms Budrey. 

Medical staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) - inset Teresa Budrey, eastern region dire

Medical staff wearing standard personal protective equipment (PPE) iin April 2020 (file image), inset Teresa Budrey, eastern region director at the Royal College of Nursing Pictures: Jacob King/PA Wire/RCN - Credit: Jacob King/PA WIRE/ROYAL COLLEGE

“Our members and all health care professionals need urgent reassurance from ministers and scientists that they are sufficiently protected from the new variant both by PPE and safety procedures in their place of work.” 

Hospital chiefs said extractor fans have already been added to windows in some wards across Colchester and Ipswich hospitals. 

Mr Thorpe added: “Our infection, prevention and control team, along with estates and facilities colleagues, continue to look into what more can be done to improve ventilation across all inpatient wards at the trust.” 

A West Suffolk Hospital spokesman said: “We have good supplies of PPE, and staff are able to follow national guidance to protect themselves and patients. 

“This includes the use of FFP3 masks as well as other infection prevention control measures.”