Matt Hancock has been criticised for a “disgustingly disrespectful” claim that there was never a national shortage of personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
Doctors and MPs condemned the UK health secretary as “deeply insulting” on Tuesday after he insisted that his team had delivered protective equipment for frontline NHS staff in the “teeth of a pandemic”.
Doctors groups said they had helped deliver 45,000 masks to hospitals that lacked adequate supply at the start of the crisis and that the families of healthcare workers who lost their lives to Covid had raised concerns about the protection they received.
Amid the first wave of coronavirus, NHS staff were photographed with poorly fitting PPE, with some having to make gowns themselves from bin bags.
Hancock said that while there were “individual challenges in access to PPE”, they “never had a national shortage, because of my team”.
He was addressing a high court ruling over failings in publishing details of coronavirus-related contracts. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This has all been looked into in great detail. It’s only because of the transparency that I support that we can ask questions about these contracts.
“And what’s more, it’s easy to ask these questions, but what is hard is to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic.”
Dolin Bhagawati, from the medical campaign group Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), said Hancock’s comment that the NHS did not face a national shortage of PPE during the first wave of the pandemic “is disgustingly disrespectful to the memory of frontline colleagues who died from Covid-19 while raising concerns about inadequate PPE”.
He said frontline staff did not imagine having to provide their own makeshift protective equipment, “raising our concerns for weeks only for them to be ignored”.
DAUK delivered 45,000 masks to hospitals that lacked adequate supply. “We are not imagining mourning the colleagues that treated Covid-19 patients with inadequate PPE,” Bhagawati said.
He added: “This callous disregard for the experience of shell-shocked NHS staff in order to save political face is beneath contemptible.”
Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan – an A&E doctor – said: “It is an insult to claim there was no shortage of PPE. Many frontline workers had to ration protective equipment, putting themselves at risk.
“Lots of it was inadequate and poorly fitting, and some NHS staff had to make gowns themselves from bin bags. The fact is, it was a smash-and-grab for Tory donors and friends. And protecting workers who were putting themselves in harm’s way to look after people seems to have been an afterthought.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing staff who were put in harm’s way because they could not access proper protective equipment will find this claim deeply insulting.” She added that reports from the National Audit Office, and the Commons public accounts committee and health and social care committee also directly contradicted what Hancock was claiming.
After Hancock’s comments, other MPs tweeted to criticise him. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “There was no shortage of PPE … What planet is Matt Hancock living on?”
The Labour MP for East Leeds, Richard Burgon, said: “Instead of resigning, Matt Hancock is busy touring TV studios explaining why there was no national shortage of PPE despite the disgraceful footage of nurses wearing bin bags.”