Boris Johnson is being asked to personally intervene to ensure NHS workers get the masks, gloves and other protection they need while treating Covid-19 patients.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has written to the Prime Minister saying there is a need to ensure adequate stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The letter also says that nurses must get coronavirus testing, so that staff with possible symptoms of Covid-19 know whether they are infected or not.
It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a huge amount of work had been done to get PPE to the frontline after medics reported there was not enough stock.
He said he also wants to increase testing of NHS staff and hopes to make an announcement within the next few days.
In her letter to the PM, Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the RCN, said: “Our members have been unstinting in their dedication and professionalism to protecting the health and wellbeing of the United Kingdom – they must be supported by the Government and health sector in return.
“Our members are coming out of retirement, students are interrupting their studies, and nursing staff are deploying from non-clinical settings, all to support the front-line in the battle against Covid-19.
“We ask you to personally intervene and act to ensure enough supply of PPE and testing for Covid-19 is available for all nursing staff and our colleagues across the health and care system.”
Earlier, Mr Hancock admitted there have been “challenges” with the supply of PPE to frontline NHS staff after a doctors’ leader said they felt they were being treated like “cannon fodder”.
Amid reports that a number of medics are seriously ill after becoming infected with Covid-19, including a nurse with no underlying health issues, Mr Hancock said the armed forces were being drafted in to help distribute PPE supplies to the health service.
He spoke after the chairman of the Doctors’ Association Dr Rinesh Parmar said: “We have had doctors tell us they feel like lambs to the slaughter, that they feel like cannon fodder. GPs tell us that they feel absolutely abandoned.
“What our doctors are telling us is that although equipment is arriving, some of it is inadequate, some of it doesn’t meet the World Health Organisation guidance.”
His comments came after a letter in the Sunday Times from almost 4,000 NHS workers called on the Prime Minister to “protect the lives of the life-savers” and resolve the “unacceptable” shortage of protective equipment.
The British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons has reported that some of the most seriously ill UK patients include healthy ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialists who ended up on life support after being infected by normal contact with patients.
Nurse and mother-of-three Areema Nasreen, 36, who has no underlying health issues, is also in intensive care at Walsall Manor Hospital after being diagnosed with coronavirus.
NHS England said millions more items of PPE had been delivered over the last few days to hospitals, ambulance trusts and care homes among others.
It said the army would “play its part” from this week, offering personnel to “help to manage and offload supplies in busy NHS settings” and distributing PPE supplies to the frontline.
Mr Hancock said: “I am determined to ensure that the right kit gets to the right hospital, the right ambulance service, the right doctors’ surgery, right across the country.
“There have been challenges and I can see that. We’re on it and trying to solve all the problems.”
There has been increased pressure on the supply chain of PPE owing to the outbreak of Covid-19 as well as the related manufacturing slowdown particularly in China, the NHS said.
Mr Hancock said every hospital has now had a delivery of protective equipment and a hotline has been set up so medics can inform officials about shortages.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We have brought in the military to help with the logistics of getting masks out to everybody who needs them. This is incredibly important to protect our NHS staff and social care staff who need the masks as well.
“There is a huge logistical operation on because of the nature and the scale of the NHS and the sheer quantity of masks that are rightly being used.
“It is a massive effort, and we want to know if you haven’t got the protective equipment or are about to run out – we want to hear from you as quickly as possible.”
Emily Lawson, chief commercial officer for the NHS, said: “We need massively increased, urgent volume of these supplies to the frontline in this exceptional set of circumstances.
“Working with our partners, we are now seeing much-increased capacity, and a more responsive supply chain to help take us through the coronavirus outbreak. We are extremely grateful for the army’s support in doing so.”