AMBULANCE staff across Cumbria worked for up to 23 days with face masks which were not ‘fit tested’ to protect them from coronavirus, says a union.

Officials from the public service workers' union Unison now plan to report North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) to the Health and Safety Executive, saying that their members have been left feeling angry and let down.

All front-line NHS staff working with potentially infected patients should wear properly tested respirators. They have to be airtight to prevent the inhalation of potentially infectious airborne moisture particles.

Known as FFP3 masks, they should all be individually fit-tested for the wearer.

Yet it was not until April 15 - 23 days after the government imposed lockdown - that NWAS began fit-testing its masks, said Unison convenor Mike Oliver.

Almost a year earlier, the union wrote to NWAS bosses to warn of a “significant number of staff” using untested masks. Sent on March 14 last year, the emailed message was triggered by two incidents when staff dealt with patients who had “potentially” infectious disease.

West Cumbria has already seen a small “cluster” of four ambulance staff testing positive for coronavirus, Mr Oliver told the News & Star. “We’ve had an example of a member of staff who went to a cardiac arrest wearing an FFP3 face mask and the patient later tested positive for Covid-19,” said Mr Oliver.

“Two days later the mask he was wearing was fit-tested and it failed. That was in west Cumbria. This is a risk that our members should not have been exposed to. It’s not acceptable.”

Asked how his members felt about it, Mr Oliver said: “They feel angry and upset. The risk has been greater than it should have been. The service should have routinely been doing fit-testing in case of things like this.”

Scores of ambulance staff were potentially affected, he added.

An NWAS spokeswoman said the service was doing all it could to protect staff who were working extremely hard in difficult circumstances.

“NWAS has had a face fit testing programme in place across the trust since mid-April and our teams have been working hard to ensure the PPE has been specifically tested to ensure the maximum level of protection and effectiveness.

“NWAS follows the PPE advice and guidance of Public Health England (PHE) specifically set out for ambulance staff which is being followed by ambulance trusts across the country.

“We continue to co-ordinate and liaise with NHS Supply Chain, PHE and NHS England on an ongoing basis so that we have the required PPE available to our staff across the trust.

“We’re supporting our staff with regular updates as we adapt to this ever-changing situation and we will continue assisting all staff both in and out of work with health and wellbeing support throughout this pandemic.” She thanked staff and the public for their continued support.

Last week, bosses at The Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle and West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven apologised to 130 theatres staff after admitting they had worked with inadequately tested respirators.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) accused the NHS trust involved of “reckless” behaviour, claiming the failure over a five week period may have put the lives at risk.

The RCN vowed to raise the issue with the HSE.

Professor John Howarth, deputy chief executive of North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, accepted the criticism, saying: “We should have done better. The issue had not been addressed, with almost 90 staff at the trust trained to do the fit testing, he said.

The HSE’s website outlines the vital importance of proper fit testing for respirators.

It says: “Tight-fitting respirators (such as disposable FFP3 masks and reusable half masks) rely on having a good seal with the wearer’s face. A face fit test should be carried out to ensure the respiratory protective equipment (RPE) can protect the wearer.”

Unison main represents public sector workers in the UK but its members also inlcude workers employed by private contractors.