UK ministers urged to ensure frontline NHS staff have right kit to fight Covid-19
By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
Ministers are facing mounting pressure to give front-line NHS staff the protective equipment they need as they tackle the coronavirus crisis.
Former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt joined calls for the Government to "sort this out", adding: "We are asking people to put their own lives at risk on the NHS front line.
"It is absolutely heart-breaking when NHS front-line professionals don't have the equipment that they need.
"I think the Government has done a lot in the last week. I think they have unblocked the supply chains, but there is this question about whether it is the right equipment."
He spoke after Lisa Anderson, a consultant cardiologist at St George's Hospital in London, said the Government had changed the rules so they were no longer compliant with World Health Organisation recommendations, which require medics to wear a full gown and visor.
She said that since Monday, staff in the NHS only had to wear a simple face mask, short gloves and a pinafore apron.
"This is not just about the risk to ourselves and our families. We are travelling home on the Tube, on buses," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"Sainsbury's this morning has announced that they are opening up the early hours to the frail, elderly and NHS workers. We are cross-infecting everybody at the moment.
"There is a lack of protection for us which extends to a lack of plan of how to segregate patients clean and dirty, how to protect us and keep us away from the public. Doctors have no faith in what is going on."
Boris Johnson ordered the closure of the hospitality and entertainment sectors from Saturday amid fears the NHS could be overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases.
With scientists warning "social distancing" measures will have to stay in place for months to come, tens of thousands of pubs, bars, restaurants, cinemas, nightclubs, gyms and betting shops were left wondering when they will be able to open their doors again.
The move came as a further 39 people in England were confirmed to have died after testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK death toll to 177.
Speaking on Friday, Mr Johnson said there is a "massive effort" under way to ensure the health service has the ventilators and intensive care beds it needs to cope with the expected influx of new hospital cases.
Meanwhile, economists have said the bill for the Government's scheme to cover most of the wages of workers whose jobs are under threat from the outbreak could run to billions of pounds a month.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned the cost of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's coronavirus job retention scheme is simply "unknowable".
In a move previously unthinkable for a Conservative Government, Mr Sunak said employers would be able to apply to HM Revenue and Customs to cover 80% of the wages of staff they keep on up to £2,500 a month.
IFS director Paul Johnson said if the support is claimed for 10% of employees, it could cost the Government £10 billion over three months.
"The cost of the wage subsidy package is unknowable at present but will run into several billion pounds per month that it is in operation," he said.
"It is clearly a policy designed in haste and will require considerable speed and flexibility from HMRC to deliver. As a result there are obvious concerns about its design."
The plan was, however, broadly welcomed by trade unions and employers as offering a vital lifeline amid growing fears of a major recession.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: "As a sector employing nearly one million people, the Chancellor's support package announced today on staff wages will safeguard thousands of livelihoods and help closed pubs try to get through this difficult period. We stand ready to work with the Government to ensure that the support is accessible as fast as possible."
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said it was a "breakthrough" and praised the Chancellor for showing "real leadership".
However, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mr Sunak had not gone "far enough or fast enough".
And the Government faced criticism that its plan to underwrite the wages of millions of workers did not cover freelancers, contractors and the self-employed.
Treasury Chief Secretary Stephen Barclay has said providing protection for the incomes of the self-employed would be "operationally" difficult to deliver.
But he said they would benefit from measures such as the deferral of self-assessment tax requirements, the holidays for mortgage payers and the strengthening of the welfare "safety net".
He added: "The main thing we have done is twofold: it is to support the economy as a whole, because the best thing for people who are self-employed as for all people is to sustain the economy and ensure that we can return with those viable businesses, and alongside that strengthen the safety net.
"So we have increased the allowance on Universal Credit, we have made it available from day one, we have removed the minimum income floor so if people who are self-employed are working less than 35 hours in a week they are not penalised within the benefits system."
Pressed on Today over whether the Government would come forward with measures specifically for the self-employed, he said: "I come back to this underlying point about operationally what is difficult to do and what can be delivered to the timescales were are working to."