COVID-19: British Sikh doctors campaign against forced beard shaving

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British Sikh doctors are campaigning beard shaving for a better procurement strategy by the National Health Service for personal protective equipment required on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in hospitals after a number of them were forced away from key roles due to their beards.

The Sikh Doctors Association had reports of at least five Sikhs being moved out of their usual shift rota at the NHS hospitals for refusing to shave their beards and failing a so-called fit test of critical facial protective gear.

These doctors got in touch with us in some distress for being forced out of their usual roles, which was causing tension among colleagues as they had to cover their work, said Dr. Sukhdev Singh, chairperson of the Sikh Doctors Association.

The problem arose due to a shortage of specialist facial protective masks called Powdered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), which is a hood respirator required in critical areas such as intensive care units. The fit tests’ and equipment need to be geared towards all staff needs, including orthodox Sikhs with turbans and beards, he said.

All the individual cases of the five British Sikh doctors have since been resolved through the acquisition of PAPRs, a more expensive but reusable kit costing around GBP 1,000.

The association is now working with individual NHS Trusts and more widely with the NHS England to ensure there is greater awareness around procuring such specialist protective gear in sufficient quantities well in time. The regular cloth FFP3 masks would not work with beards, a factor that could impact other communities such as Muslims as well.

The system of procurement cannot continue blindly. There has to be greater interaction and surveys done to ensure that specific staff requirements are taken on board so that there is sufficient stock of the right kind of PPE available in times of crisis such as a pandemic, added Singh.

Sikh Council UK has also been liaising with the NHS England alongside the association over the issue and had written to Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive officer of NHS England, last month seeking his intervention over greater clarity on fit tests and taking religious sensitivities into account.

It has come to our attention that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHS Trusts around the United Kingdom will be carrying out ‘fit tests’ in which certain medical staff could be asked to remove facial hair, the council said.

For Sikhs, their duty of care is intrinsically interlinked with their faith. Therefore, we ask that no Sikh healthcare professional is forcibly made to choose between breaking their faith or breaking their frontline NHS role, it noted.

NHS England has since confirmed that reasonable adjustments would be made.

I wholeheartedly agree that reasonable adjustments should be made by providers in this area. As such, in my weekly discussions with trust medical directors and chief nurses from NHS trusts I will state this clearly as a reminder, Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of the NHS England, said in response.

The short supply of PPE has been a major issue for NHS hospitals tackling the highly infectious coronavirus, with the government under considerable pressure over the lack of enough protective gear for frontline staff. Several private fundraising efforts have also been launched to raise enough funds to produce and procure required facial masks and aprons.

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