SO much focus has gone into protecting the NHS, but it is looking more and more like the social care sector has been the forgotten frontline of the coronavirus crisis.

Local resilience forums, multi-agency partnerships made up of all the organisations needed to prepare for, and respond to, different types of emergency, have been using their reach to secure vital personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect social care workers.

Many local authorities, including St Helens Council, have even been forced to make public appeals for PPE.

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Delays to an online portal that will allow primary and social care providers across England to order urgent PPE have further compounded the situation.

The e-commerce site, which has been built by eBay, will allow primary and social care providers across England to order urgent PPE.

It was supposed to be up and running weeks ago but is still being tested and is yet to be rolled out across the country.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands there are fears the portal may not be operational for another month.

Locally, the Merseyside Resilience Forum has been purchasing stock through normal procurement routes and using the government’s national emergency supply of PPE.

The resilience forum has also been taking in PPE donations from businesses and organisations from across Merseyside.

In St Helens, the local authority was forced to launch a public appeal for PPE, with businesses donating masks, aprons, gloves, visors and other items.

Donations have been made by Pilkington, Arrow Engineering, Barrow Street Dentist, CK Mobile Hair & Beauty, Classy Cuts Salon, Craig Construction, First Step Podiatry and My Dentist, to name a few.

Through these businesses, the council said it has provided PPE to more than 130 health and social care providers.

A number of organisations have also come forward with links to suppliers to help St Helens Council buy additional stock.

St Helens Star: St Helens Council leader David Baines picking up a donation from Barrow Street Dental Practice in St Helens town centre St Helens Council leader David Baines picking up a donation from Barrow Street Dental Practice in St Helens town centre

But while council chiefs are wholly grateful that businesses, many of which have been badly affected by the pandemic, have stepped up in this time of need, they are adamant this should not have happened.

St Helens Council leader David Baines is usually a fierce critic of the Conservative government, but has been somewhat reserved in his comments during the current crisis.

But the Labour council leader feels the situation has got so bad, he has a “duty to be honest” with the public about the current situation.

“We all want the government to succeed and to do the best possible job in tackling COVID-19,” Cllr Baines said.

“I want them to make sure the country gets through this.

“So I don’t make criticism lightly, but I believe those of us in public positions of responsibility have a duty to be honest about our experiences and the work we’re doing, and especially so when the safety and well-being of essential workers and the public is at stake.”

In recent weeks, PPE such as eye protection, aprons, gowns, gloves and hand sanitiser have been delivered via the Merseyside Resilience Forum from the government’s national supply.

Earlier this week, 800,000 face masks purchased to the Merseyside Resilience Forum were delivered to its distribution centre in Wirral, with another 200,000 expected over the weekend.

The face masks, which will be distributed proportionately to hubs across the region, are primarily for use in social care practice, including in care homes and private nursing homes.

Deputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy from Merseyside Police, chairman of the Merseyside Resilience Forum, said: “This significant delivery of PPE will support our colleagues on the frontline to keep safe whilst they carry on delivering vital services to the most vulnerable in our communities.

“Our priority is making sure our colleagues have access to the PPE they need to do their jobs safely.

“We are working with our partners across Merseyside to make sure there is a constant supply coming in, via a number of routes, and is being distributed to those who need it most, including frontline care staff.”

St Helens Star: Deputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy from Merseyside Police, is the chairman of the Merseyside Resilience ForumDeputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy from Merseyside Police, is the chairman of the Merseyside Resilience Forum

The government’s dedicated COVID-19 channel was set up by NHS Supply Chain, a Department of Health and Social Care subsidiary that usually procures common consumables and medical devices for trusts.

The channel is managed by retail logistics firm Clipper and the military and has been delivering goods to trusts since the end of March.

Once the new online portal is rolled out to primary and social care providers, their orders will be processed by NHS Supply Chain, although what they receive will depend on need and central stock levels.

When this will be is still unclear.

The Department of Health and Adult Social Care was approached for comment.

The Merseyside Resilience Forum was also approached about the delay but declined to comment.

On the frontline, 2,600 care workers from across the North West shared their personal experiences during the pandemic in a UNISON survey, with more than 400 Merseyside-based carers responding.

The University of Kent Law School published a report on the findings after analysing all of the responses.

A large majority of care and support workers said their employers were not doing enough to keep them and the people who use their services safe.

The most widespread concern reported by survey respondents across all care-settings was a lack of PPE.

One Merseyside-based carer said they had not been provided basic items such as aprons and masks, hand sanitiser and hand wash.

Another care worker in neighbouring authority Knowsley, said: “We’re having to justify why we need a mask or a new box of gloves.

“The supply just isn’t there but if I feel I or one of my clients is at risk then I feel I have to right to request adequate PPE.

“The company line is if the client isn’t displaying symptoms you don’t need a mask.

“Which I understand but once the symptoms appear it’s too late for us.”

This week fresh questions have been raised over the government’s decision to not take part in an EU scheme to bulk buy medical equipment that could be in the fight against the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Office’s Sir Simon McDonald told MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee it was a “political decision” not to take part in the scheme, which would have procured PPE, ventilators and testing kits.

Hours later, Sir Simon retracted his comments.

At the time, the government said the UK was making its own arrangements because it was no longer in the EU.

Following Sir Simon’s comments, Downing Street issued a statement saying the UK had been invited to take part in the EU scheme, but officials missed the email because of a “communication confusion”.

“Problems and delays with providing PPE have already been well documented,” Cllr Baines said.

“We know for example that the UK had the opportunity to be part of an EU scheme to bulk buy huge amounts of PPE, but depending on who you believe we either didn’t do this because Ministers missed the emails or because they decided not to do so for political reasons.

“Neither excuse is acceptable.”

It is still unclear just how badly the coronavirus pandemic has affected care homes in St Helens.

Earlier this month, figures released by St Helens Council showed that in the week up to April 16, 34 people had died in the borough’s 29 care homes.

At that time, 17 of these homes had reported residents who had shown COVID-19 symptoms.

Out of the 34 deaths, St Helens Council said it could “definitely confirm” eight of those were related to Covid-19.

The council has published no figures on care homes since then.

St Helens Star: It's still unclear just how badly affected care homes in St Helens have been from the coronavirus outbreakIt's still unclear just how badly affected care homes in St Helens have been from the coronavirus outbreak

Cllr Baines said St Helens has been “better served” than many other areas thanks to PPE secured via the Merseyside Resilience Forum.

The council has also procured its own stock to supplement this, on top of the donations from the public.

Despite this, Cllr Baines warned the council has a “limited supply” of PPE and said resilience forums and councils should not be doing the government’s job.

“The Merseyside Resilience Forum or councils shouldn’t have to procure PPE, and we certainly shouldn’t have to make public appeals for it,” he said.

“Central government should be procuring and coordinating its delivery to make sure all key workers have what they need.

“It is only thanks to the hard work of our own council staff here in St Helens and the region that we have the equipment we do.

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“There is no doubt that a public inquiry will take place at some point into the handling of this crisis, and sadly I think the government will be found lacking in several ways.

“On testing, on contact tracing, on the lockdown, and on PPE they have been too slow and uncoordinated.

“We’ll continue to do all we can locally to help protect our front-line staff and the public.”