Coronavirus: High-risk health workers ‘may not be protected’ in Wales

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Guidance to protect at-risk healthcare workers in Wales from coronavirus infection has been relaxed, the BBC has learned.

A risk assessment tool initially recommended high-risk workers should not work in the parts of a hospital where infection was most likely.

But it now says their personal protective equipment (PPE) should be reviewed or duties changed.

The Welsh government says this reflects latest data and low infection rates.

However, healthcare professionals say the change to the all-Wales Covid-19 workforce risk assessment tool was made without consultation, and are concerned it was done to prevent hospitals from losing frontline staff ahead of a potential second wave of the virus.

No reply

Mr Amol Pandit, a urologist who helped to design the tool, has written to the Welsh government four times seeking clarity on the basis for the changes, and why no one was made aware of them before the tool was rolled out.

“The changes could have been made in order to keep as many healthcare workers on the frontline as possible, which is why I sent a specific list of questions to the Welsh government, so that I could have assurances that it wasn’t done for that reason, but for clinical, evidence-based reasons,” Mr Pandit said.

“But I haven’t had a reply to that.”

Mr Pandit believes healthcare workers who fall into the high-risk category and work in environments where aerosol-generating procedures are performed – considered to carry a high risk of transmission of the virus – may not be fully protected by the current version of the tool if PPE supplies fall short and additional safeguarding measures aren’t put into place.

“The government needs to be absolutely sure that there is adequate PPE and that it is going to be available to everybody – we have to trust them on that,” he said

“If it isn’t the case, then the same casualties and mortality figures would replicate. I’m hoping that won’t happen.”

‘Deeply concerned’

Dr David Bailey, council chairman of the British Medical Association in Wales, expressed concern about the implications for healthcare workers.

“We would be deeply concerned if healthcare workers were being pressurised to return to a role which would be inappropriate after scoring high risk on the All Wales Risk Assessment,” he said.

“We know that doctors from BAME communities can be less confident in raising concerns, so it is imperative that employers take this into account during the assessment and subsequent discussions.”

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 26 healthcare workers died from coronavirus in Wales between the start of March and the end of May.

Many of them were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

When it became clear that the virus was disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities, the Welsh government commissioned its BAME health advisory sub-group to develop a risk assessment tool. A number of clinicians from across Wales were involved in this process.

The tool was rolled out at the end of May, and an update was made to it earlier this month to reflect changes to shielding guidance. It is the first standardised risk assessment to be rolled out in the UK.

“Line managers are encouraged to support their employees in its usage, and ensure mitigations are put in place to protect the workforce effectively,” a Welsh government spokesperson said.