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Birmingham MP urges government to address PPE concerns of Sikh frontline workers

Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill has written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, raising concerns of Sikh frontline workers who say that the masks they have been supplied with do not pass “fit tests”.

Gill noted that many Sikhs working in primary care settings, such as doctors and dentists, in her constituency had found that the masks failed to fit properly due to their beards. “On 24th April I wrote to bring this to your attention via a Parliamentary Question, and I regret that I have not yet received a response,” she wrote. “I hope you agree that no Sikh should be made to choose between breaking their faith and compromising their safety or commitment to the front line. Yet, many Sikhs have found they have been unable to pass fit tests due to the poor suitability of FFP2 and FFP3 type masks to men with large beards.”

Gill, who is also shadow international development secretary, has urged Hancock to look into this issue “to ensure that Sikhs on the front line are not forgotten during this emergency, and that a solution is found to allow them to conduct their vital work safely and without compromising their faith”. British Sikh doctors have been campaigning for a better PPE procurement strategy by the NHS, after a number of them were forced away from key roles due to their beards.

The Sikh Doctors Association had reports of at least five Sikhs being moved out of their usual shift rota at the NHS hospitals for refusing to shave their beards and failing a so-called “fit test” of critical facial protective gear. “These doctors got in touch with us in some distress for being forced out of their usual roles, which was causing tension among colleagues as they had to cover their work,” said Dr Sukhdev Singh, chairperson of the Sikh Doctors Association.

“The problem arose due to a shortage of specialist facial protective masks called Powdered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), which is a hood respirator required in critical areas such as intensive care units. The ‘fit tests’ and equipment need to be geared towards all staff needs, including orthodox Sikhs with turbans and beards,” he said. All the individual cases of the five British Sikh doctors have since been resolved through acquisition of PAPRs, a more expensive but reusable kit costing around GBP 1,000.

The association is now working with individual NHS Trusts and more widely with the NHS England to ensure there is greater awareness around procuring such specialist protective gear in sufficient quantities well in time. The regular cloth FFP3 masks would not work with beards, a factor that could impact other communities such as Muslims as well. “The system of procurement cannot continue blindly. There has to be greater interaction and surveys done to ensure that specific staff requirements are taken on board so that there is sufficient stock of the right kind of PPE available in times of crisis such as a pandemic,” added Singh.

Sikh Council UK has also been liaising with the NHS England alongside the association over the issue and had written to Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive officer of NHS England, last month seeking his intervention over greater clarity on “fit tests” and taking religious sensitivities into account. “It has come to our attention that due to the Covid-19 pandemic; NHS Trusts around the UK will be carrying out ‘’fit tests’ in which certain medical staff could be asked to remove facial hair,” the council said.

“For Sikhs, their duty of care is intrinsically interlinked with their faith. Therefore, we ask that no Sikh healthcare professional is forcibly made to choose between breaking their faith or breaking their frontline NHS role.” NHS England had confirmed that “reasonable adjustments” would be made. “I wholeheartedly agree that reasonable adjustments should be made by providers in this area. As such, in my weekly discussions with trust medical directors and chief nurses from NHS trusts I will state this clearly as a reminder,” Stephen Powis, national medical director, NHS England.

The short supply of PPE has been a major issue for NHS hospitals tackling the highly infectious coronavirus, with the government under considerable pressure over the lack of enough protective gear for frontline staff. Several private fundraising efforts have also been launched to raise enough funds to produce and procure required facial masks and aprons.

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