The first Aer Lingus flight to China to collect personal protective equipment for the Irish health service arrived in Beijing shortly before 8.30pm on Saturday, having left Dublin Airport earlier in the morning.
On Saturday Minister for Health Simon Harris said the first of upwards of ten flights carring PPE, including surgical masks, gowns and eye shields for health service workers, would arrive into Dublin on an Aer Lingus flight from China on Sunday afternoon.
Over €225 million had been spent on PPE – compared with €15 million in a normal year, he said. The HSE would begin distributing about €20 million worth of PPE from Sunday evening and up to ten further flights delivering more equipment were due between now and Wednesday, he said.
It comes as stocks of personal protective equipment for healthcare staff tackling the Covid-19 outbreak are “beginning to run low”, according to the Health Service Executive.
The HSE is currently seeking to redistribute stocks to sites with “particular shortages”, it said in a statement. “We are encouraging staff to use these resources appropriately at this stage of the crisis.”
One group of doctors say they have procured €6,000 worth of PPE themselves after losing patience with the HSE’s efforts to supply the equipment.
While the large shipment PPE is scheduled to arrive back in Dublin Airport on Sunday and be distributed in the succeeding days, but it remains unclear whether existing supplies will be sufficient to bridge the gap until then.
This €28 million delivery is the first batch of a large contract which the HSE says will address any current shortages.
The Chinese embassy in Ireland said on Friday the first Aer Lingus cargo flight carrying PPE was scheduled to leave Dublin on Saturday morning and was due to land back in Dublin Airport late on Sunday.
“Sail safe! We have got your back,” the embassy tweeted. It had earlier said it has secured landing slots for the first 10 Aer Lingus flights needed to ferry the equipment back to Ireland.
Sources say Defence Forces trucks will be used to distribute the consignment, starting on Sunday evening.
The HSE in its statement said it was seeking to manage prudently current PPE supplies “in light of the global shortage of this essential equipment at a time of unprecedented demand”.
Since February 1st, about €30 million had been invested in PPE stock, “which are now beginning to run low”.
The HSE has been urging hospitals to “preserve” stock until new deliveries arrive. The health service is short of goggles but not of other equipment such as masks, according to HSE chief operating officer Dr Colm Henry.
Dr Henry has told staff, in a memo seen by The Irish Times, to conserve stock by reducing their risk to exposure, not using PPE when they can avoid exposure, substituting some items for others, extending the use of equipment and “reprocessed” PPE.
Last week, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association wrote to the Minister for Health warning stocks of PPE were running out in some locations,“leaving frontline staff and their patients in extremely exposed positions”.
Over €60 million has been spent so far this year on protective equipment in the fight against Covid-19, compared to a traditional yearly allocation of €15 million.
On Thursday, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said he “fully appreciated” the concerns expressed about PPE supplies. He said he too was concerned about the issue, but “it’s a global battle for this”.
The total spend on equipment this year will be over €230 million, he added.
Earlier this week, a donation of equipment from Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, including masks, testing kits and protective suits, arrived in Ireland.