Health leaders should urgently review the guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff caring for Covid patients, leading doctors have said.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that inadequate provision of the kit needed to protect doctors and nurses could be placing those on the front line at risk.
It has written to Public Health England (PHE) calling for a review of the PPE guidance.
The doctors’ union said that there is a wider need for the use of respirators to protect frontline workers.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, warned of the “significant and growing concerns about the role of aerosol transmission of Covid-19 in healthcare settings” at a time when the NHS is facing “critical” pressure.
He added: “Now that we have been assured that supply is no longer an issue, we believe guidance should be updated to take a more precautionary approach to better protect those working on the front line.
“If healthcare workers fall ill from being infected and are unable to work, it will be devastating for the health service at this time of critical pressures, and it will compound the pressures besieging hospitals and GP practices.”
The BMA has also written to the Department of Health and Social Care calling for officials to ensure that the supply of equipment meets the needs of all staff.
Dr Nagpaul wrote: “Female doctors are still struggling to find masks that fit, often failing the ‘fit test’ or being left with sores and ulcers after long shifts when wearing masks that did not fit.
“We have raised concerns in the past that PPE is designed to fit men, not women – despite the fact that 75% of the NHS workforce are women.”
He said that the one-size-fits-all approach is “not appropriate”, adding: “Guidance and provision must take account of differing needs of the individual healthcare worker – no matter who you are, you should have proper-fitting PPE, regardless of gender, ethnicity and religion.”
Personal protective equipment problems were a significant burden on front line workers in the first wave of the pandemic last year.
Doctors reported “hiding” kit so they had enough to use on their next shift while others purchased equipment from sites such as Amazon to keep themselves safe.
Commenting, Rose Gallagher from the Royal College of Nursing said: “The Government is dragging its heels on this issue.
“We echo the BMA’s concerns and have already urged that nursing staff be given a higher level of PPE if working with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases.
“Nursing staff are under incredible pressure and the last thing they need is to be in any way unsure about whether or not they have adequate protection against this horrendous disease.”
PHE said that it does not lead on the guidance. It said that the NHS Infection Prevention Control group has reviewed the latest evidence and has advised that PPE should continue to be worn as laid out in the current infection prevention control (IPC) guidance.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said: “NHS staff are under immense pressures and their safety has always been our highest priority.
“The NHS Infection Prevention Control group has reviewed the latest evidence and has advised that PPE should continue to be worn as laid out in the current IPC guidance, with FFP3 masks (a type of respirator mask) required for staff undertaking clinical aerosol generating procedures.
“This is supported by the World Health Organisation.
“Emerging evidence and data on variant strains and transmission will be continually monitored and reviewed.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Guidance on the safest levels and standards of PPE is written by experts and agreed by all four UK Chief Medical Officers.
“Our guidance is kept under constant review based on the latest evidence.”