Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1083/30648
Where's our PPE? Where's our testing? Where's our money?
Beth Webster, ICU nurse at University Hospital Wales, Cardiff
Health workers don't want medals, and care workers don't want badges.
We want the equipment we need to be safe while we do our jobs. And we want a decent pay rise that means worrying about paying the bills isn't distracting us from worrying about patients.
That's why millions of health workers were enraged when Tory health secretary Matt Hancock said: "Now is not the time to discuss a pay rise for nurses."
Health workers have had a decade of real-terms pay cuts, leaving many of us with pay worth 20% less than it was in 2010. That meant thousands of nurses and other health professionals left the NHS, leaving us too short-staffed to run the NHS properly, even before the coronavirus crisis hit.
Many of my colleagues are saying that they will play their part while the emergency lasts, but that they're leaving afterwards. That would be a catastrophe for everyone who relies on the service. It must be made clear that the sacrifice of these workers is valued. There should be an immediate 10% pay rise, plus hazard pay, and an agreement to quickly recover all pay lost since 2010.
The last straw for many has been the callous way that politicians have treated our safety. Initially, we were told not to wear any personal protective equipment (PPE). After health worker fatalities and rising anger, the guidelines were changed. But they're still driven by supply failings, not safety, and in most areas the PPE is inadequate.
This, together with the pitifully small number of people who have been tested in the UK, means many health workers have nothing between them and the developing pandemic. It feels like we're being sent over the top without any ammo.
Despite what Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford says, PPE failures were a key factor in why there are so many infections around Newport. 50% of accident and emergency workers in the Royal Gwent Hospital have the virus, according to an A&E consultant there.
Nurses and doctors have been hooked up to ventilators in the unit I work in. Some are among the 100 health workers to have died as a result of the disease. We need an urgent trade union-led investigation of the health worker deaths in the UK to see what PPE they were wearing, whether they were trained properly in its use, and what the conditions were like on their wards. Because fatigue really can kill in this situation.
There has been no serious effort to guarantee the supply of the PPE we need by the UK government or the devolved governments. There shouldn't be a debate in the press at all about whether there's enough PPE or not: politicians are lying when they say there's enough to go around. It's not the fault of nurses. They are having to ransack hardware stores, and appeal on social media for supplies.
At the hospital I work in, we keep running out of things as basic and essential as medium gloves, swabs for Covid-19 tests and facemasks, including in the ICU. There is outrage that instead of finding a solution to the shortages, the response has been to reuse equipment or downgrade the safety guidelines.
The health unions should take control of determining what health workers need to work safely. They should take over the supply and distribution of PPE too. We need a new army of union reps to come forward to coordinate that, and make sure we're kept as safe as possible.
The government should immediately take over companies capable of producing PPE and re-purpose production to produce the equipment we need.
Workers who know the job need to run things directly too. So that there are no more mistakes - like the ventilators that have been manufactured and are useless because patients can't be weaned off their support - and so that all the shortages can be identified.
It's not just ventilators we need. Dialysis machines, supportive pillows for prone patients, and liquid nutrition, for example, are all in short supply too. The industries should be run under democratic workers' control, with health workers on the boards involved in designing the kit, and ensuring it is correctly distributed.
- PPE for all frontline workers
- Mass testing for all
- Workers' control of workplace safety
- 100% wages and increased benefits
- 10% pay rises for all NHS and frontline workers + hazard pay
- Minimum wage of £12 an hour
- Step up workplace organisation - build fighting trade unions
- Fight for an independent political voice for working-class people
- Make the rich pay for the crisis, not workers
- End the profit system
- Socialist planning, not capitalist chaos
In The Socialist 22 April 2020:
Frontline workers speak out
Lenin at 150