Health chiefs learned of Covid guidance from TV early in pandemic, inquiry told

A picture of chaotic scenes and a general lack of preparedness was painted on day one of the Covid inquiry’s first public hearing.

Local health chiefs were finding out about new coronavirus policies and guidance from televised daily press conferences and doctors were using bin liners to protect themselves on the frontline, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

As memories of 2020 were shared a picture of chaotic scenes and a general lack of preparedness was painted on day one of the inquiry’s first public hearing.

Failures of planning and preparation for personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare staff “led to the ludicrous spectacle of doctors making aprons from bin liners”, one lawyer said.

Another told of local health chiefs being left out of pandemic planning despite having a “deep knowledge” of their communities and populations.

Steven Ford KC, representing the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH), which he likened to local chief medical officers, said directors of public health had been “repeatedly excluded from key communications and guidance developed at a national level”.

He told the inquiry there was “an insufficient understanding of the role of directors of public health at a national level” and “as a consequence they were largely omitted from planning for the pandemic”.

Mr Ford added: “They should have been consulted earlier and more comprehensively by national bodies.

“Firstly, at the start of the pandemic, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not hold an up-to-date contact list for directors of the public health in various local authorities.

“Secondly, at the start of the pandemic, directors were learning about new policies and guidance at the same time as members of the public were when the televised 5pm daily briefings began to be broadcast.

“They were expected to impose these policies without the necessary structures and support mechanisms having been in place.”

In healthcare settings staff had to improvise having been left with a lack of adequate protective clothing.

Brian Stanton, lawyer for the British Medical Association, listed the ways in which medical workers coped.

He said: “The fact that in March 2020 NHS England assured the health and social care committee that there was sufficient supply of PPE nationally, despite stocks containing less than two weeks’ worth of most equipment, suggests serious failures of planning and preparation.

“Frontline staff often had to go without PPE, buy their own, use homemade, donated or expired items, and reuse single-use items. Staff also had to use items that were out of date, with multiple expired stickers visibly layered on top of each other.

“Many felt pressured to work without adequate protection, with consequences for their mental and physical health.”

He said failures in planning and preparation had “led to the ludicrous spectacle of doctors making aprons from bin liners, because they were sturdier than the PPE equipment provided”.

The inquiry’s lead lawyer Hugo Keith KC said even before hearing all the evidence “it is apparent that we (the UK) might not have been very well prepared at all”, adding that the country was “taken by surprise” when it came to “significant aspects” of the pandemic.

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