‘Young and healthy’ frontline workers denied PPE during first Covid wave

Delly Bezoss

Some frontline healthcare workers were told they did not need protective equipment or testing because they were “young and healthy” during the first wave of Covid-19, while others were forced to share equipment such as thermometers and goggles, an unpublished report for the Health Service Executive (HSE) has revealed.

One staff member who requested leave to protect an immunosuppressed spouse was “denied this and told they would lose their job if they did not show up for work”, the report found.

Health workers said goggles were shared, with wipes provided to clean them, and several reported how oral or ear thermometers were shared on wards, with plastic coverings changed between use, and how blankets and beds were moved in and out of Covid wards.

The extensive report was released by the HSE following a lengthy appeal under Freedom of Information laws over a year after it was first sought.

The report is based on interviews with 400 frontline workers who caught Covid in the first wave of infection, many of whom worked in nursing homes or similar facilities.

The details are revealed in Pandemonium, a new book on Covid-19 in Ireland by journalists Jack Horgan-Jones and Hugh O’Connell, which is published this week.


One respondent said catering staff were “told because they were young and healthy, they did not need a mask and [the] facility did not want them being tested”. Another said they felt “betrayed” by the HSE over how personal protective equipment (PPE) was distributed.

Another said they “did not feel fully recovered but felt pressured to be back at work”.

Another felt that workers “concealed the fact that they were symptomatic or Covid positive in order to continue working and getting paid”.

Another said PPE was not recommended for housekeeping staff.

The report details how in many instances self-isolation and other practices were good, and headline figures compiled for the report show high levels of compliance in many areas.

However, it found only about one in five facilities appeared to have IPC (Infection Prevention and Control) training before the end of February 2020, and “in over half of the facilities training for both IPC and PPE use was reactive in the context of Covid-19 rather than proactive and a component of standard practice”.

One-fifth of respondents said training took place “around the time” of the outbreak, while another third said it happened after the outbreak.

The HSE has said it had concerns over the methodology used in the report, and that it relied heavily on “very negative” quotations to support criticism not within the scope of IPC. Despite being marked as “final” the HSE said it remained in draft format, was never approved and was not submitted to Nphet “due to a number of unresolved issues relating to feedback from key stakeholders”.

Elder care

The lead investigator was Prof Mary Codd of UCD school of public health. Respondents were involved in frontline work – 81 per cent had direct contact with patients, some 40 per cent worked in elder care.

Some facilities saw workers from Covid and non-Covid units sharing changing rooms, while workers related instances where people awaiting testing results were not isolated, but it was later found that “they were all positive”.

The management of Covid patients in some facilities was criticised – one saying that “if Covid-positive patients did not want to move to the Covid ward they were left in their own rooms on non-Covid wards”.

Another said they felt let down by IPC where they worked, saying there was “wide-scale refusing to swab staff, [a] lack of contact tracing within the hospital” and that the department was “fobbing them off re: the need for PPE”.


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