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Cancer charity calls for mandatory Covid face masks for hospital staff

NHS staff should return to wearing face masks in all clinical settings for the autumn, winter and other periods where cases of Covid-19 are on the rise, a leading charity has said.

Blood Cancer UK called for the reintroduction of a policy, which ended earlier this year as the Government moved to a “living with Covid” strategy, to help protect vulnerable patients. Routine Covid-19 testing for most medics and patients in England also ended at the end of March under the strategy.

Hospitals across the UK started to drop strict mask-wearing rules for staff in patient-face roles in April. Face masks are warn in some hospital areas, such as those working in high-risk clinical areas such as oncology, haematology, and chemotherapy departments, but Blood Cancer UK said a non-blanket approach causes problems.

Many immunosuppressed people visit other departments – such as for blood tests – where masks are not obligatory, thereby putting them at greater risk, the charity said.

Laura Challinor, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Blood Cancer UK, told i: “There are 280,000 people living with blood cancer in the UK, and due to the nature of their condition and treatment, many are also immunocompromised.

“While it is currently not compulsory to wear face masks in all healthcare settings, the absence of masks can cause worry for people in this group.

“We would like to see hospitals carry out risk assessments for people at high risk of adverse Covid-19 outcomes and while haematology units are generally aware of their patients’ vulnerability and will wear masks, at Blood Cancer UK we’ve heard from health care practitioners who couldn’t always find masks in their department.

“People with blood cancer also frequently visit other departments for things like blood tests and x-rays, where there may not be the same awareness of risk for the immunosuppressed. We encourage hospitals to make sure masks are available for their staff and to be prepared that people with blood cancer may reasonably ask staff members outside of haematology departments to wear a mask during an assessment or consultation.”

The charity is calling for UK-wide guidance that asks health and care staff, if they are able to, to wear masks in all clinical settings to be reintroduced as soon as possible.

Current local variations of Covid cases “risk an unequal approach to protecting vulnerable people in the UK, including people with blood cancer”, it said.

Dr Adrian Warnock, a blood cancer patient who has spent more than two years shielding, said that ending mask mandates and testing of some hospital staff “denies safe access to health care to vulnerable people”.

He claimed: “Immune compromised patients who catch Covid from their untested sick healthcare workers are the victims of medical negligence.”

Some NHS trusts around the country have already reintroduced face mask mandates in clinical settings following a rise in seeing patients with Covid-19.

University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust (UHL), which made the change covering wards and the emergency department waiting area last week, said the move was to protect patients, staff and visitors, although it insisted the number of infections were “low”.

Last month, health workers and the public were told to start wearing masks again in Isle of Man hospitals after a rise in the number of patients with Covid. The island was currently in the early stages of a “potential new wave”, with a further spike expected following the return of children to school and the recent poor weather.

Officials said masks were “tried and tested” in controlling virus spread.

NHS Covid policies have come under the spotlight this week after a trust in Shropshire apologised following an email to all staff, which told them they should not be taking a coronavirus test.

The directive sent by Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust said testing for the virus could “result in having to remain at home for longer than their symptoms persist”.

Stephen Griffin, a Professor of Cancer Virology at the University of Leeds, called it a “callous approach to staff and patient safety”. The trust apologised saying it prioritises the wellbeing and safety of its patients and staff.

Ms Challinor said: “What we need to see is increased Covid-19 testing in clinical settings and an effort to make sure staff who are experiencing respiratory infection symptoms or get a positive Covid-19 results are following UK Health Security Agency guidance. Earlier this year symptomatic testing in hospitals was greatly reduced.

“We would also like to see guidance published and resources made available to allow for symptomatic testing of all healthcare staff in all clinical settings, as well as support for staff to stay home if they have Covid-19.”

NHS England has been approached for comment.

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