Protective facemasks used by medics battling coronavirus ‘being stolen’

Protective facemasks used by medics battling coronavirus are being stolen from emergency departments in Northern Ireland, the health minister has said.

Robin Swann expressed concern at the thefts as he announced he was releasing 30% a stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) ahead of schedule.

The stockpile is in place to help the health service respond to pandemics as they develop.

A range of healthcare professionals, from doctors and nurses treating patients in hospital settings to GPs, community-based nurses and staff in care homes, have highlighted the need for more PPE to be made available.

The Royal College of Nursing was the latest organisation to raise concerns on Tuesday, writing to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to demand their intervention in ensuring the sufficient supply of PPE.

Mr Swann announced the move to release supply from the stockpile during an Assembly debate on beefed-up powers to restrict people’s movement during the Covid 19 crisis.

“Earlier on today I authorised the release of 30% of our pandemic stockpile,” he told MLAs.

“It’s probably earlier then we wished we could have but (that’s) because of the concerns that have been raised.”

Mr Swann urged health chiefs to manage the stock wisely.

“That’s the challenge at this minute in time, it’s a challenge my department can’t manage at that level on the front line, so there’s a responsibility there,” he added.

“Folks, I stood here a fortnight ago and I said about how sanitiser was being stolen from our hospitals. Folks, face masks are being stolen from our emergency departments.

“So the pressure may be on us as a department and on the (health) trusts to make sure that the PPE is there and is available but there is also a responsibility on the wider public to make sure it’s available to those who need it when they need it.”

The letter from the RCN also calls on the Northern Ireland Executive and Department of Health to increase the number of tests for the virus for nursing staff so that those with possible symptoms of Covid-19 know whether they are infected or not.

RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said: “Nurses have been relentless in their dedication and professionalism to protecting the health and wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland. They must be supported by the Northern Ireland Executive and Department of Health to continue to do this.”

In a statement on the PPE issue, the Department of Health said “every effort” was being made to find alternative sources of PPE.

“There is international demand pressure for PPE as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic and the fact that China was a major global supplier,” the statement added.