BBC Panorama found there were no gowns, visors, swabs and body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when COVID-19 reached the UK.
It said vital items were left out of the stockpile when it was set up in 2009 and that the government ignored a warning from its own advisers to buy missing equipment.
The programme, broadcast on Monday evening, also claimed the government downgraded its guidance on the severity of COVID-19 as late as 13 March so it could provide a lower level of PPE to health workers.
The programme, titled “Has the Government Failed the NHS?”, claimed the government counted single surgical gloves instead of a pair as one item of PPE.
One health worker told the programme: “Calling us heroes just makes it okay when we die.”
The government insisted it has taken the right steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic and is trying to increase its PPE stockpile.
But Panorama reported that the expert committee that advises the government on pandemics, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said last June that gowns, one of the items in shortest supply, should be purchased.
A government spokesman told the programme that Nervtag did not recommend stockpiling swabs and body bags.
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He said the stockpile was designed for a flu pandemic, and COVID-19 has a higher hospitalisation rate.
COVID-19 was officially designated a high consequence infectious disease (HCID) in January.
In 2019, the Health and Safety Executive recommended that all healthcare workers wear a gown, FFP3 respirator mask and visor when dealing with HCIDs.
But Panorama said the government downgraded its PPE guidance on 13 March to tell NHS workers they were safe to wear less protective aprons and basic surgical masks – and took steps to remove COVID-19 from its list of HCIDs on the same day.
Rather than consult the experts who recommended categorising COVID-19 as HCID, however, the government instead asked its Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP), Panorama said.
The programme claimed sources on that committee said the decision was, in part, a decision based on the low availability of PPE.
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In its official guidance on coronavirus, the government says COVID-19 was taken off the list because it has a “low overall” mortality rate and that there is “greater clinical awareness and a specific and sensitive laboratory test”.
Professor John Ashton, a former regional public health director, said the failure to stockpile some items meant NHS staff were working without crucial equipment.
He told the programme: “The consequence of not planning, not ordering kit, not having stockpiles, is that we are sending into the frontline doctors, nurses, other health workers and social care workers without the equipment to keep them safe.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.
“The government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.”
On Tuesday, responding to the Panorama programme, minister for safeguarding Victoria Atkins told BBC Breakfast: “I’m very, very sorry to hear of that report.”
She went on: “I think we have, throughout this crisis, we have been absolutely clear we are working with scientists… to try and ensure that we are dealing with this in a step-by-step way.
“The requirements for PPE have risen exponentially and we are doing our absolute best to address those needs and will continue to do so throughout this crisis.”
#Lies As a foot soldier of the NHS for over 40 years,I have never been so hurt watching #Panorama The government was counting each single glove as an item of PPE in order to fiddle the figures &prove they were meeting demand. #PPEshortage killed #NHSheroes !@MattHancock Resign— Dr Kailash Chand OBE (@KailashChandOBE) April 28, 2020
Not a single protective gown in the national stockpile. When large numbers of pieces of PPE delivered were quoted by ministers they counted each single glove as one piece! V good programme, but totally damning. Worth watching. https://t.co/lYBDmq10am— Gabriel Scally (@GabrielScally) April 27, 2020
There was anger from health experts and workers at the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on social media.
Dr Kailash Chand, honorary vice president of the British Medical Association (BMA) tweeted: “As a foot soldier of the NHS for over 40 years, I have never been so hurt watching #Panorama”.
Meanwhile, Dr Gabriel Scally, a former regional director of public health and honorary professor of public health at the University of Bristol, said the programme was “totally damning” for the government.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana said the programme “showed the incredible bravery of NHS staff”.
Charlotte Villiers, professor of law at the University of Bristol, tweeted: “How the government can survive and stay in power following that is unfathomable. They are drenched with guilt.”