Protective gowns and masks could be reused by health workers under “last resort” coronavirus plans revealed in a leaked Public Health England document.
Emails seen by the BBC also showed that some hospitals have begun laundering single-use gowns to preserve stocks.
The British Medical Association said this “underlines the urgency” of protective equipment shortages.
Public Health England said the safe reuse of items was being considered.
However, it said no decisions had been made.
A document seen by the BBC has revealed new details of plans to tackle shortages of personal protective equipment, known as PPE.
It is understood that the chief medical officers and chief nurses of the four UK nations recently discussed the issue.
Following the meeting, a draft document written by Public Health England and dated 13 April suggested solutions for “acute supply shortages” of PPE.
“These are last-resort alternatives, but given the current in-country stock and the reduced ability to re-supply, we are suggesting that these are implemented until confirmation of adequate re-supply is in place”, it said.
The plans suggested a series of “last-resort arrangements”, including:
- Buying “building” or “sportswear” eye protection with extensions to cover the side of the eyes if there are no available goggles or face shields
- Using washable laboratory coats and patients’ gowns where there are no available disposable gowns or coveralls
- Re-purposing face masks using various disinfection or sterilisation methods, including steam and UV disinfection
The document said some of the last-resort measures would need to be reviewed and approved by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of vaporised hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate certain masks.
It is understood that the infection and prevention and control team at NHS England believe the Health and Safety Executive should be responsible for reviewing the guidance in this area.
NHS staff use an app to request crucial PPE and managers also have access to a government hotline.
Emails seen by the BBC also showed some hospitals have trialled and begun reusing single-use, fluid repellent gowns that they have laundered.
Discussions are understood to be taking place about whether to ask local launderettes to re-open to process the cleaning of gowns.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association, said: “This underlines the urgency with which we need this situation sorted.
“The government must be honest about PPE supplies.
“If [Public Heath England] is proposing the reuse of equipment, it needs to be demonstrably driven by science and the best evidence in keeping with international standards, rather than by availability, and with absolutely no compromise to the protection of healthcare workers.”
In a statement, Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, said: “PPE is a precious resource and it is crucial that everyone in health and social care has access to the right protective equipment.
“All options are being considered to ensure this, including the safe reuse of items, but no decisions have been made.”
The HSE said it was right that, where possible, “strategies for optimising the supply of PPE should be explored”.
“We are discussing with Public Health England ways in which pressure can be eased on the supply chain. This includes potentially reusing certain equipment where it is safe to do so,” it said.