London: An Indian-origin husband and wife doctor couple have launched a legal action against the UK government for the shortage of as well as "unclear" guidance issued on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) across the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Nishant Joshi and his pregnant wife, Dr Meenal Viz, are challenging the lawfulness of the PPE guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England and the government's failures to source essential PPE domestically and from the European Union (EU).
They say they have been exposed to patients with Covid-19 and are concerned that current PPE guidance and availability is inadequate to provide them with appropriate protection from infection.
"We are incredibly concerned at the ever-growing numbers of healthcare workers who are becoming seriously unwell and dying due to Covid-19. It is the government's duty to protect its healthcare workers, and there is great anxiety amongst staff with regards to safety protocols that seem to change without rhyme or reason," the couple said in a joint statement issued this week through the London-headquartered law firm Bindmans LLP.
"Every time a healthcare worker becomes hospitalized with COVID-19, it exacts an extraordinary toll on our friends, family and colleagues. To sedate and ventilate your own colleague takes a mental toll on the entire workforce," they said.
"The government owes an apology to these bereaved families, many of whom were unable to be with their loved ones in their dying moments. Their trauma and grief is unimaginable we want to ensure that no other family has to endure this suffering."
Joshi, a general practitioner (GP) trainee, has been leading a social media campaign for weeks over the safety guidance and supply of PPE for medical staff. Wife Viz, a clinical fellow in medicine, was recently pictured outside Downing Street dressed in full medical scrubs and a surgical mask holding a placard reading: Protect Healthcare Workers.
The couple add: All we ask for is accountability from decision-makers, and that all evidence leading to these decisions should be published and transparent.
"We are doctors, we are nurses and we are healthcare workers, we will be there for you in your time of need. We will be there for your family. The government needs to protect us, so that we can protect you."
Their legal action is challenging the official guidance around PPE use as not being in line with the international standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or domestic legislation regarding health and safety at work; it exposing healthcare workers to a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 and fails to address the greater risks faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) healthcare workers.
They want the guidance be amended to make it consistent with WHO standards, to explain the risks associated with the use of different types of PPE, and to clarify the right of staff to refuse to work where they consider PPE to be inadequate.
Basmah Sahib, Bindmans LLP Solicitor for the couple, said: The NHS is the UK's biggest employer. Almost all of us have a friend or loved one who is putting their life at risk to care for Covid-19 patients. The least they deserve is honesty, clear guidance and proper support from the Secretary of State [Matt Hancock] to feel safe and protected at work.
"No healthcare worker should face disciplinary action just for requesting proper protective equipment. We hope the guidance will be brought up to the standards of the WHO and that hospitals will update their practices accordingly.
The law firm has sought an urgent review of the PPE Guidance and asked UK Health Secretary Hancock to confirm that he is urgently taking appropriate steps to source PPE.
Because PPE guidance affects decisions made by NHS Procurement, NHS Employers and Health Education England, they have been included as interested parties in this challenge and have been sent a copy of the pre-action legal letter the first step for initiating a legal challenge.
The supply of PPE to the NHS and other frontline workers across UK care homes has been a persistent crisis over the past few weeks, with the government pledging all efforts to address what has been described as an international supply challenge.
Recent updated guidance on the use of these crucial pieces of protective gear indicated re-use of surgical gowns, triggering fears within the medical community of putting themselves and patients at greater risk as they combat the deadly virus, which has claimed over 18,000 lives in the UK.