Nurses told to refuse to treat coronavirus patients if they cannot get protective equipment as criticism of government mounts
The Royal College of Nursing said its guidance was a ‘last resort’ for staff without PPE.
Nurses should refuse to treat coronavirus patients if they have not been given adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), according to their union.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the safety of frontline staff “must not be compromised”, as it was revealed that at least 19 NHS workers have already died after contracting the virus.
The toll comes amid ongoing criticism of the speed at which the Government has supplied PPE to staff working to treat those struck down by Covid-19 - with a fresh survey of surgeons warning that almost a third do not have access to the masks, gowns and clothing needed to protect them.
In a seven-point safety plan for nurses, the RCN said: "Ultimately, if you have exhausted all other measures to reduce the risk and you have not been given appropriate PPE in line with the UK Infection Prevention and Control guidance, you are entitled to refuse to work.
"This will be a last resort and the RCN recognises what a difficult step this would be for nursing staff."
The RCN has said it will provide legal support to any staff forced to make the “enormously difficult” decision to withdraw care, and has urged nurses to document written reasons for any such move in a bid to shield them from disciplinary or even legal action.
An RCN spokesperson said: "For nursing staff, this will go against every instinct. But their safety must not be compromised."
"I'm sorry if people feel that there have been failings" - Priti Patel
The guidance comes after Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was sorry “if people feel that there have been failings” in the supply of PPE to the frontline.
But she said it was "inevitable" that demand for such equipment would be high during a global pandemic.
Speaking at the latest government press conference on Covid-19, Ms Patel said: "I'm sorry if people feel that there have been failings. I will be very, very clear about that.
"But at the same time, we are in an unprecedented global health pandemic right now. It is inevitable that the demand and the pressures on PPE and demand for PPE are going to be exponential."
Almost a third (32.5%) of UK surgeons surveyed by the Royal College of Surgeons said they did not have access to adequate protective equipment.
Across the UK, 41% of surgeons polled believe there is enough PPE - but 39% of those in Scotland and 36% in the north-west of England say there is a shortage.
The Royal College said there was "still a lot more work to do to get adequate equipment to the front line".
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, has meanwhile warned that supplies of PPE in London and Yorkshire are at “dangerously low levels”.
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: "This is an immensely difficult position to be in, but is ultimately down to the government's chronic failure to supply us with the proper equipment."
Speaking on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 742 million pieces of protective gear had been delivered so far - and he urged NHS staff to treat it like “the precious resource that it is”.
Mr Hancock said he was not "impugning anyone who works for the NHS”, but said he wanted to stress “the importance to use the right amount of PPE”.
That prompted anger from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who said it was "insulting to imply frontline staff are wasting PPE".