Six NHS hospital staff have been sent home after falling ill with Covid-19 when they breached government rules by not wearing a mask when sharing lifts to and from work.
The six were told not to come into work by the University Hospitals of North Midlands trust, which is already having to deliver services with almost 600 personnel off work because of the illness.
Staff at the trust, which runs the Royal Stoke and Stafford County hospitals, were told about the incident in an email last week from Dr John Oxtoby, the trust’s medical director. The trust refused to say what roles the six perform at what is one of the NHS’s biggest, or at which hospital they work.
Their actions are a clear breach of the government’s guidance on the measures passengers should take to ensure they are not spreading or being exposed to coronavirus if they are travelling with people who are not in their household or support bubble.
It states that people travelling should “ask the driver and passengers to wear a face covering” as well as opening windows to ensure ventilation, cleaning vehicles in between journeys and sharing the car with the same people on each trip.
In his email to staff on 28 October, Oxtoby said: “It is essential that all staff who are car sharing wear a mask for the full journey to and from work.
“This week we had to send six members of staff home as they did not wear masks and have now developed Covid-19 symptoms.”
He also reminded staff to always wear a visor in clinical areas where doing so is advised, even if a patient has tested negative. The trust refused to say if any staff had recently flouted that rule.
On Tuesday this week, 987 of the trust’s 11,500 staff were off sick, of whom 583 either had Covid-19 or were isolating because someone in their household was displaying symptoms. Those 583 represented a sharp increase on the 421 staff who were off sick due to Covid-19 when Oxtoby sent his email on 28 October – a 39% rise in just six days.
Asked about the behaviour of the six staff, Oxtoby said that trust staff, like everyone in the NHS, had been working hard throughout the pandemic. But, he added: “We all obviously have a responsibility to observe national guidance and our staff are regularly kept up to date with the latest advice as it becomes available.
“Wearing a face mask and eye protection alongside hand washing and social distancing are all important measures of reducing the spread of Covid-19 in our hospitals and to keep our patients and communities safe.”
Lindsay Meeks, the Royal College of Nursing’s West Midlands regional director, said: “While there’s no suggestion this incident involves any of our members, we would urge all nursing staff to adhere to the Covid-19 restrictions in place in their area, and to any guidelines put in place by their employer. This will not only help keep them safe, but will also help reduce the risk to their colleagues and their patients.”
In July, the Guardian disclosed how the failure of nurses from Hillingdon hospital in London to wear masks at a training session had spread the virus to colleagues, which led to the hospital having to temporarily restrict emergency admissions.
About a week later, the Guardian reported on how Sarah Tedford, the hospital’s then chief executive – who had heavily criticised the nurses in an email to staff – had herself been photographed not wearing a mask, in front of a sign reminding personnel to don one. She left the trust a month later.