NHS staff treating COVID-19 patients should be given the much more protective FFP3 face masks rather than the standard thin ‘surgical’ masks to help them avoid getting infected during the Omicron wave of the pandemic, doctors say.
The British Medical Association (BMA), Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) and Doctors’ Association UK are calling for frontline personnel to be given the FFP3 masks.
Making the much higher-quality face masks standard issue would save the lives of health workers who fall ill as a result of treating COVID-19 patients, the BMA said: “At this critical point in the pandemic this is extremely urgent – a matter of life and death,” said Professor Raymond Agius, the acting chair of the doctors’ union’s occupational health committee.
FFP3 masks, also known as filtering facepiece respirators, have been shown in a trial in Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge to reduce the number of healthcare staff who become infected.
However, the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) guidance on personal protective equipment still only recommends their use in limited circumstances.
“With a high transmissible new strain now circulating, and clear evidence that COVID-19 spreads in small airborne particles, healthcare workers must be given the best possible protection against the virus. Surgical masks don’t give the necessary protection against airborne transmission of Covid,” Agius said.
The BMA has written to every hospital trust in England demanding that any healthcare professionals (HCPs) treating patients who are, or may be, COVID-19-positive should be routinely issued with FFP3s which are much more expensive than the surgical masks usually provided.
Surgical masks are ‘unsuitable’ given the threat COVID-19 poses, the BMA believes.
In its letter it has reminded hospital chief executives of their legal responsibilities as employers to keep their staff safe from harm, including by providing FFP3s.
A handful of hospitals are understood to already issued FFP3 respirators as standard, but most do not.
The BMA has also written to NHS England asking it to ensure all GP practices are also issued with FFP3s instead of surgical masks, particularly because family doctors often work in small, cramped surgeries.
“Healthcare workers in hospitals and GP surgeries are putting themselves and potentially their own families at risk, particularly with this new, highly transmissible Omicron variant,” said Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the BMA’s pensions committee.
The DHSC’s most recently updated guidance says: ‘staff should assess any likely blood and body fluid exposure risk and ensure PPE is worn that provides adequate protection against the risks associated with the procedure or task being undertaken’. However, it only advises frontline staff to use an FFP3 if they are undertaking an aerosol-generating procedure, such as intubating a patient who is going on to a mechanical ventilator, and not with COVID-19 patients generally.
A DHSC spokesperson confirmed that it does not plan to recommend routine use of FFP3 masks:
“Guidance on the appropriate levels and standards of PPE is written by clinical experts. Updated infection prevention control guidance was published to reflect the latest scientific understanding on how to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Emerging evidence and data are continually monitored and reviewed and guidance will be amended accordingly if appropriate.”
Almost twelve months ago the Aerosol Generating Procedures (AGP) Alliance* wrote to then Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to demand he urgently intervene to ensure that all HCPs have access to FFP3 PPE when working with patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
At that time, 49,000 hospital staff were off work due to COVID-19, leading to huge frontline staffing pressures. As of New Year’s Eve 2021, more than one-in-ten NHS staff were already off work through illness or self-isolation, topping last year’s peak January absence figure on the first day of the month.
* Members of the AGP Alliance