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Surgeons appeal to Boris not to soften lockdown criteria – “Thousands of lives will be lost if the NHS is treated as an economic punch-bag”

30 Apr 2020

Following reports that the government’s lockdown criteria have been softened the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) is calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to stand up for the health service that saved him.

Today RCS publishes its second ‘COVID survey of surgeons’, which shows the government’s 4th test for lifting lockdown isn’t yet being met, because surgeons aren’t yet getting the PPE or tests that they require.

The survey of 1,263 surgeons and surgical trainees finds PPE shortages persist for roughly a third of surgeons:

  • 32.8% of respondents do not believe there is an adequate supply of PPE in their workplace
  • 34.1% of respondents said there had been shortages of full, long-sleeved, fluid repellent surgical gowns, or fluid repellent coveralls, over the last two weeks.
  • 30.5% said there had been shortages of FFP2 or FFP3 respirator masks
  • 28.8% highlighted shortages of full face visors

On staff-testing, Tuesday’s announcement that tests will be extended to asymptomatic staff is welcome.  The RCS survey reports:

  • 82.4% of surgeons and surgical trainees saying tests were being reserved for staff with symptoms - just 7.5% said there was testing for asymptomatic staff in their workplace.

The appeal from surgical leaders comes as the RCS publishes new guidance for surgical teams to re-start thousands of operations, delayed because of the current crisis.   

President-elect of the RCS, Professor Neil Mortensen said:

“Just because the NHS has not been overwhelmed so far, it does not mean the government can use the health service as its economic punch-bag.  It has been a close run thing, and to use Boris Johnson's own words, ‘we have begun to wrestle it to the floor’, but the virus is certainly not yet defeated. Softening the fifth test to allow relaxation provided the NHS is not ‘overwhelmed’, is based on a flawed premise.

“The NHS has done a tremendous job of redirecting staff and resources to manage the first wave of coronavirus, but this involved postponing thousands of much-needed operations. Having seen off the immediate threat, we must now get back to helping all those patients waiting for essential operations like heart and brain surgery. The NHS cannot continue to be just a COVID-service, it’s so much more than that.

“Our survey shows the government’s fourth test for lifting lockdown has not yet been met.  Surgeons still lack PPE, and we need to be sure that the welcome recent announcements to extend testing mean all hospital workers can get tested quickly, whether or not they are symptomatic.  Having so recently experienced first-hand the support of the NHS, I hope the Prime Minister will not listen to those urging relaxation of the government’s position, on the flawed premise that the NHS ‘can cope’.” 


Comments from surgeons in today’s survey:

  • ‘There has been a major disruption in semi-urgent elective cases and cancer cases. Those patients have been coming to hospital with all sorts of complications due to the delay in their operation.’ 
    Urologist, North West England
  • ‘Emergency surgery continues. Urgent surgery severely restricted due to lack of theatre staff, prepping assessment or anaesthetic staff.’ 
    Vascular surgeon, East Midlands
  • ‘Advice about level of PPE varies across region as does access. Trust advice is clearly led by availability of PPE. We are being asked to reuse masks and gowns.’ 
    Consultant, Yorkshire and the Humber
  • ‘There is now a push towards COVID-19 free surgical areas to recommence semi-elective work. However, it seems that patients are being tested but not staff. Asymptomatic carriers may indeed be the elephant in the room, staff would surely need testing and isolating also.’
    Consultant, West Midlands



Notes to editors

  1. Daily Mail spots the change in wording of the government’s lockdown criteria here:
    Telegraph report on softening the lockdown criteria here:
  2. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity which exists to advance surgical standards and advance surgical care.
  3. For more information contact the RCS press office on Tel. 020 7869 6047 (out of hours 020 7869 6056)
  4. The RCS survey fieldwork ran from 23 April 2020 to 28 April 2020. The survey was completed by 1,263 surgeons and surgical trainees. Data tables available on request. 

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