15:01, June 08 183 0 theguardian.com

2020-06-08 15:01:04
UK ministers face legal challenge for refusal to order PPE inquiry

Ministers are facing a high court legal challenge after they refused to order an urgent investigation into the shortages of personal protective equipment faced by NHS staff during the pandemic.

Doctors, lawyers and campaigners for older people’s welfare issued proceedings on Monday which they hope will lead to a judicial review of the government’s efforts to ensure that health professionals and social care staff had enough PPE to keep them safe.

They want to compel ministers to hold an independent inquiry into PPE and ensure that staff in settings looking after coronavirus patients will be able to obtain the gowns, masks, eye protection and gloves they need if, as many doctors fear, there is a second wave of the disease.

Around 300 health workers have so far died of Covid-19, and many NHS staff groups and families claim that inadequate PPE played a key role in exposing them.

The case is being brought against Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, by the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), the Good Law Project headed by Jolyon Maugham QC and the charity Hourglass, which campaigns on issues involving care homes. They are paying for the lawsuit through crowdfunding, which has so far raised more than £41,000.

They launched their legal action after government lawyers said an inquiry was unnecessary and would distract the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and other key bodies involved in arranging the supply of PPE or guidance about what kit should be used.

“We are appalled at the government’s refusal to urgently commission an independent public inquiry to examine all the facts from the planning to the procurement to the provision of PPE and learn lessons. A review is imperative if we are to avoid a repeat of the conditions seen during the first wave of the pandemic,” said Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the DAUK.

“Now is precisely the time to hold a rapid, focused inquiry into the provision of PPE to healthcare workers. There may be a second wave, and it may be soon. We know there has been an inadequate supply of out of date and perishing stock; we know our standards have fallen short of World Health Organization and European Centre for Disease Control guidance. It would be unconscionable to ask our NHS and care sector to face that second wave without learning lessons from the first.”

The three applicants claim the government has breached article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which obliges ministers to take action to save lives and to instigate an inquiry where avoidable deaths have occurred.

In a ten-page reply, solicitors in the government legal department say that ministers do not need to hold the sort of inquiry the applicants are seeking. The Health and Safety Executive and coroners are already investigating cases where lack of PPE was apparently implicated in a health worker’s death and the HSE may launch prosecutions, they say.

Michael Tun, whose father Dr Peter Tun died of Covid-19 earlier in the pandemic after trying in vain to get PPE for his unit, is backing the legal challenge. The Guardian revealed in April that the specialist in neurorehabilitation at the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading had emailed hospital managers asking for PPE but had his requests turned down.

The DHSC’s refusal to order a probe into PPE will disappoint senior doctors, growing numbers of whom want the government to commission a wide-ranging public inquiry into all aspects of its preparations for and handling of the pandemic.

“The list of those calling for an immediate public inquiry reads like the great and the good of the worlds of medicine and public administration,” said Maugham.

“But government, I believe, is too much concerned with managing public perceptions of its handling of the crisis – even if that means we fail to learn the lessons that will minimise future loss of life.”

In their letter government lawyers also contend that “opening an immediate public inquiry may not be an effective way to learn urgent lessons … [and] risks diverting attention from the [government’s] response [to coronavirus]; slowing down government action; and potentially risking lives … It might carry serious risks.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

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