HOSPITAL bosses in north and west Cumbria have launched an investigation into why some front-line staff worked with protective respirator masks which were not properly tested.

The NHS trust involved has already apologised to scores of theatres staff at the two hospitals worked with inadequately tested face masks.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has also accused North Cumbria Integrated Care Foundation Trust, which manages the hospitals, of “reckless” behaviour, claiming that the failure over five weeks may have put lives at risk.

All respirator masks have to be ‘fit tested' to ensure they are airtight and thereby providing full protection from infectious airborne moisture particles.

The trust said: “We apologise for the delay in formally fit testing our respirators for our theatre teams during April.

“During the time in question our staff had the respirators and all the other essential PPE.

"But were doing a procedure called self-checking – checking the seal of the masks themselves following a protocol.

“We have had an unprecedented challenge to try and keep up with the levels of fit testing required.We have now gone from a small handful of trained fit testers to over 80 trained testers.

Like trusts nationally we have received many different makes of masks from the supply chain and we did not know in advance the makes that we would receive.

“Each time a different mask is received we would have to fit check significant numbers of staff to the new masks yet the next consignment could be of a different type requiring us to start all over again.

“To try and mitigate this we issued our theatre teams with re-usable masks called Sundstrom masks in late March where the filter is changed regularly but the mask is cleaned and reused.

“The aim of this was to provide our staff with the same mask and avoid having to repeatedly refit different types of masks.

“The team were self-fit checking these masks and we accept that the delay to formally fit check the masks was too long.

“We have met the staff in the theatres and apologised for this delay.

“Our ward managers are regularly reviewing all staff to make sure they are now fit tested, and we are currently under taking weekly audits.

“Fit testing has been always undertaken by the Trust for infectious diseases with a policy in place and as such many staff will have already had their checks before COVID-19. During March we had 15 fit testers within our infection control team and a small number of trained matrons and sisters. “In early April we recognised a need to rapidly scale up fit testing and embed more testers in the teams.”

The trust now has 83 trained testers who do regular testing, said the spokeswoman.

The statement continued: “During April fit testing was available and advertised in staff bulletins, on our staff website and PPE was regularly discussed in team meetings. However we recognise the challenge of taking staff off the frontline for repeated fit testing so have now embedded testers in many of the teams. “We are undertaking an internal investigation into this issue to identify any learning for the future.”

Responding to a question from the News & Star last month during a Downing Street briefing, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he would personally look into the issue of the fit-testing of respirator masks at the two hospitals.