British doctors and health workers have raised the alarm about a lack of sufficient protective kit to treat potential coronavirus patients, potentially exposing themselves
and putting vulnerable patients at risk.
One doctor said he felt "terrified" of the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available for carers.
"I may be OK –- I'm young and healthy –- but I can't bear the thought of infecting other patients with a disease that could kill them. And that is the risk, without proper PPE," wrote one doctor in the Guardian newspaper.
Health workers are worried "less about themselves than whether they would be spreading it between their patients," said Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour MP and a doctor in the emergency department at St George's University Hospital in London.
"They have also been worried about not being tested themselves," she told AFP.
In the absence of tests, which are currently reserved for the most serious cases, caregivers with symptoms are instead told to self-isolate for two weeks.
However, testing and identifying those without the virus would be better than "losing them all into self-isolating," an NHS consultant told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The doctor, from north-east London, also highlighted the risks for relatives of highly-exposed medical staff.
- 'Brink of collapse' -
Healthcare workers have already altered their working methods in the face of the pandemic.
"All routine visits have been suspended, and we are doing telephone consultations if we can," an NHS occupational therapist in central England told AFP.
She went on to explain how they deal with suspected cases.
"If the patient has no symptoms, we use hand sanitising gel. If they have symptoms, we use a van and conduct the appointment in the 'clean' part of the van, wearing PPE, which is then destroyed."
She does not feel "particularly" protected, despite the measures: "Even if people don't have symptoms it doesn't mean they don't have it, I could walk around with the virus without anyone knowing."
A health centre in north east England has also complained of receiving surgical masks that went out of date in 2016, Labour MP Kevan Jones said in parliament on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted there was "a massive effort going on... to ensure that we have adequate supply of PPE equipment not just now but throughout the outbreak".
But this did not appear to reassure the British Medical Association (BMA), a union of doctors and medical students.
"We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers. This is totally unacceptable," it said.
The union also insisted that health workers who isolate themselves as a precautionary measure should be "tested without further delay".
The epidemic comes at a bad time for the NHS, which is already facing a staff shortage.
During his election campaign, Johnson promised 50,000 more nurses and the renovation or construction of hospitals.
"We already don't have enough doctors, enough nurses, NHS under strain," said Labour MP Allin-Khan.
"So to stress our NHS at a time when is already is at breaking point is very difficult."
The government on Thursday promised £2.9 billion in funding to try and bridge the gap, part of which will be used to speed up the discharge process for hospital inpatients, with the aim of freeing up 15,000 hospital beds by the end of March.afp