Blaming the public: PPE edition

A woman wearing a red all-over suit, a blue plastic head wrap, dark blue gloves and shoes and a white face mask, standing in a staff area of a hospital with NHS trust notices to her left.

This morning I read that a group of NHS managers had suggested that the public should not be advised to wear masks while outside as their buying them would endanger the supply of PPE to the health service. This has become a matter of serious debate in recent weeks as some areas which have lockdowns have made it compulsory for people who go to shops and other public places to wear a face covering and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wants it compulsory on public transport. However, there are those claiming it gives a false sense of security, that the masks do not provide much protection although they do impede touching the face with hands that might be contaminated, and that people should just be at home rather than out in a mask or otherwise.

Right now, we are allowed out for a daily exercise and to do essential errands such as to buy food and obtain medicine. In the streets and in queues to access supermarkets it is fairly easy to maintain a good distance from other people although some people do not make much effort to avoid you in the street. Inside supermarkets, however, it is a different matter: aisles are narrow, there are obstructions, some areas of the shop are greatly more popular than others, and there are queuing arrangements that take the queue straight past food racks or vending machines. Worse, some supermarkets insist on directing people in and out through the same long, narrow passageway, often blocking an alternative route which could be used as an exit, making it impossible to avoid getting too close to people coming the other way. The same is often true of many workplaces, despite efforts to ensure people keep their distance from each other: the stairway or corridor is often too narrow for people to pass at a 6ft or 2m distance.

Many of the people I see covering their faces are not wearing masks which are suitable for healthcare use, especially when dealing with known COVID-19 patients up close. Aside from the thin surgical masks long favoured by Chinese and Koreans while out and about, there are home-made fabric masks, scarves wrapped around the face, and pollution masks (manufacturers of those have run out and have no date for when supplies will resume). I am seeing a lot of adverts for masks on my social media feeds; I have grown wary of such adverts as things advertised through social media often prove to be poor quality. As for the claim that people would be less likely to wash their hands thoroughly or socially distance if they wear masks, most of us are under no such illusions but in many urban areas, the toilets (which is where the only wash-hand basins are) have been locked. There is nowhere in central Kingston (my home town) to wash your hands at the moment.

It is up to the government to make sure that their staff, the NHS staff, have the equipment they need to do their job safely. That’s what we pay our taxes for. It is scandalous that people are holding fundraising events, walking up and down their own back gardens, to secure PPE for NHS staff that should be readily available. We should be able to produce our own PPE and not be dependent on imports which could dry up at times when they are most needed, like now. Yet again the government lectures the people and implies that we are guilty of undermining the NHS by using masks that supposedly they should be using. It is not as if this virus came out of nowhere last month; the government had three months to prepare and did not do so.

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