Government politicians who paid tribute to healthcare workers this week have been accused of hypocrisy over their failure to supply enough equipment to protect the workers or to take care of the ill.
Health officials on both sides of the border expect the number of available intensive care beds to hit zero amid warnings that the coronavirus disease is still well short of its peak.
Some nurses in the North have sought legal advice over shortages of masks and protective clothing. In the South, top medics made public appeals for essential equipment.
Some of the shortages being seen now are the result of chronic underfunding of public health care over decades by right-wing governments. Despite the expected surge, official attemts to secure supplies remain ad-hoc and ineffective, and voluntary efforts are taking their place.
A lawyer in Belfast was contacted by frontline nurses who have been forced to treat coronavirus patients without proper masks and protective clothing.
They said urgent provision of kits - known as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - is needed, particularly “full gowns that are disposable, aprons, footwear that can be decontaminated, fluid shields and FFP3 masks”.
They also want testing for all staff exposed to suspected and positive coronavirus patients to be prioritised.
A letter sent by lawyer Claire McKeegan to Health Minister Robin Swann outlines the concerns of nurses working in the Belfast area who are “putting themselves at risk every day they go to work”. A hospital consultant and a GP have also sought help.
“Our clients have informed us that they are fearful of their safety in the hospitals due to the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” the letter states.
The development comes as medical associations in Ireland and Britain warned that doctors and other healthcare professionals will become “very ill and die” if they don’t have proper access to protective kits.
In the 26 Counties, one in four cases of the virus so far has been a healthcare worker, and now one of them, a nurse in Dublin, has lost her life. These shocking statistics has led to calls for the resignation of the 26 County Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan and HSE chief Paul Reid. Since the start of the crisis in January, both made numerous claims, repeated by government Ministers, that the health service was ‘very well prepared’ for the epidemic.
But senior medics at St James’s Hospital in Dublin this week had to take to social media to seek masks, gowns and gloves from food and pharmaceutical businesses. The Association of Chinese Professionals in Ireland said it had donated 10,000 surgical masks as a result.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said he had personally received requests from health professionals desperately seeking personal protection equipment. “It’s shocking that many nurses and doctors feel they have to scramble around on social media and WhatsApp groups,” he said.
Government claims of 50-60 planeloads of equipment arriving into Dublin from China have not yet materialised. Sinn Féin have asked for more clarity. Health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly called for anyone with equipment items to donate them to the HSE.
“We are all in this together, but our health workers are not only our last line of defence, but our only line of defence. Please, let’s help them in any way we can,” she said.
The shortage of masks has also seen vulnerable citizens at nursing homes and care homes needlessly exposed to infection, leading to clusters of avoidable deaths.
In the North, constraints on equipment for existing hospitals has led to a plan for ‘field hospitals’ with reduced medicial facilities.
Concerns are also increasing over the life-and-death decisions being made by government officials. The Six County Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said he had personally authorised doctors to categorise patients into “priority groups”, with some categories to be refused treatment for 2 to 3 months.
“This is a health crisis that is being met with an economic response by the British and 26-County states,” warned a statement by Republican Sinn Féin. “It is time to set the economic ideology aside and face up to the real task of saving human life.
“The heroic work of the health workers, retail and transport workers and all others engaged in essential public service demands no less.”