Ambulance firm resorts to DIY stores amid coronavirus equipment shortage

Dave Hawkins, MD of Met Medical Ltd, said paramedics were going off sick after being exposed to coro

Dave Hawkins, MD of Met Medical Ltd, said paramedics were going off sick after being exposed to coronavirus patients. - Credit: Met Medical Ltd

The boss of a Herts ambulance company says paramedics are going off sick with suspected coronavirus, after being forced to attend 999 calls without the right personal protective equipment (PPE).

NHS contractor Met Metical Ltd is based in St Albans.

NHS contractor Met Metical Ltd is based in St Albans. - Credit: Met Medical Ltd

Dave Hawkins, managing director of St Albans firm Met Medical Ltd, said he had been trying for over a week to get ventilated face masks and other equipment for his emergency workers.

In that time, seven paramedics started suffering from symptoms of the potentially deadly virus and were forced to go off sick.

Mr Hawkins said he and his wife had also begun exhibiting symptoms. He said he feared they had transferred the virus to their baby.

Mr Hawkins said his eight-month-old daughter, Hallie, was experiencing breathing difficulty, a cough and a raging fever.

Dave Hawkins said his baby daughter Hallie was showing coronavirus symptoms.

Dave Hawkins said his baby daughter Hallie was showing coronavirus symptoms. - Credit: Dave Hawkins

He blew the whistle as paramedics’ union Unison said its members were suffering with anxiety over growing concerns that shortages were compromising employees’ and patients’ safety.

Met Medical has contracts with several NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups.

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One contract is to respond to 999 calls for the East of England Ambulance Service.

Mr Hawkins said: “With the 999 calls, most of those patients are calling up with things related to breathing problems.”

Paramedic John Carbine said morale was low among his colleagues.

Paramedic John Carbine said morale was low among his colleagues. - Credit: John Carbine

Met Medical paramedic John Carbine said roughly half of his call-outs in recent weeks were to suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus, but he and his colleagues were having to attend with insufficient protection.

He said: “We are missing all of it, really, but respirators are the massive thing.

“Respirators are the one thing that you really, really need. Without those, you have no protection at all.

“We have got paper masks at the moment, which are useless. The proper masks look like dust masks. They seal to your face and have an in-built filter.”

Mr Hawkins first contacted the NHS with concerns over the lack of PPE on March 18.

He was told to contact a centralised service called NHS Supply Chain – but when he did, he was told the service was under instructions not to open any new accounts.

The email said: “Our governing body has advised us not to open any accounts at this stage, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

Instead, it referred him to private companies which might be able to sell him equipment. But when he contacted those suppliers, none were able to help.

He reported that back to the NHS Supply Chain and was told that, “everyone is experiencing the same problems, unfortunately”.

Mr Hawkins said he had resorted to buying some PPE from DIY chains like Screwfix and Toolstation, but it was insufficient and he expected to lose more staff to sickness imminently.

He said he feared that half of his paramedics could be carriers and infecting patients.

Mr Carbine said: “I feel that I have been exposed. It’s not a matter of if I’ve been exposed, it’s when am I going to get the symptoms and get ill. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to get it.”

Mr Carbine said the lack of protection was damaging paramedics’ morale.

“I’m very worried I’m going to give it to my mum and dad,” he said. “When I go home, I’m having to tell my partner, ‘I can’t be in contact with you’. So it causes issues at home, You’re feeling down about that, on top of the regular pressures of the job. Everyone’s struggling and tired and fed up.”

Mr Hawkins read aloud a text message he had received from one paramedic, who said he was ‘petrified for my life and for my family’s life’. The employee added: “I’ve written a ‘just in case’ letter to my family. I constantly feel lonely.”

NHS England did not respond directly to Mr Hawkins’s complaints but on Monday it published a statement saying: “The coronavirus epidemic is generating unprecedented global demand on the supply chain, combined with manufacturing slowdown in affected countries, especially China, which manufactures a large amount of PPE.”

The release said the army was “helping to distribute and deliver urgent contractor PPE supplies”, and that deliveries were “set to continue to match demand”.

Mr Hawkins reported on March 26 that NHS Supply Chain had still not opened an account for his company.

*MP “shocked” at company’s experience

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper has described Mr Hawkins’ interactions with the NHS Supply Chain as “shocking” and promised to raise them in a daily phone call with Government.

Mrs Cooper told Mr Hawkins she had already raised concerns over personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages with the public health director and the Health and Social Care Select Committee.

But she said she was shocked to hear of an email from NHS Supply Chain, saying it had been told not to open any new accounts.

Mrs Cooper said: “There is an inexplicable delay in getting this PPE to the frontline workers.

“The Government has been boasting about how it has enormous stockpiles of PPE, which was ready for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit.

“But as far I am aware, they are yet to arrive in Hertfordshire. Government is holding daily phone calls with MPs across the country. I will raise this in the daily phone call tomorrow.”

*Paramedic urges public to take virus more seriously

A paramedic says pictures of the public flouting ‘lockdown’ rules is damaging morale even more than equipment shortages.

John Carbine, a paramedic of 13 years, said: “I think everyone’s just shattered. Everyone’s really tired. And they don’t feel like the public are taking it seriously. And they’re not.

“I’ve seen people wandering around the market in St Albans.

“The Government advice could not be clearer. If people did as they were told, we could have this dealt with in a few weeks. But it’s almost like a challenge: ‘see how far out you can get today’.

“The lack of equipment you can kind of deal with. It’s just a supply and demand issue.

“It’s more the fact that you’re slogging your guts out, trying to keep people alive, and they’re wandering about getting ice cream.

“You think, ‘How selfish and self-centred can you possibly be’? That’s annoying paramedics more than anything else.”