Unions must fight to ensure all staff are provided with full PPE

Unions must fight to ensure all staff are provided with full PPE   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

A new Covid-19 patient is arriving in hospital every 30 seconds and hospital admissions continue to rise. For people who fall ill and need to go to hospital, there is the terrifying prospect of arriving to find there is no space. And workers in the NHS know exactly who is to blame. It is successive Tory and Labour governments that have spent the last decades inflicting cuts and austerity, and the private corporations who continue to bleed the health service dry in their pursuit of profits. Socialist Party members who work in the NHS report from the front line.

Exhausted and traumatised staff face rising casualties

A hospital worker in London

It’s so busy. There are so many patients. For weeks now there have been more Covid patients than there were in the first wave. Almost every ward has been given over to treating Covid now. Staff are being transferred from all kinds of jobs to the Covid wards.

The hospital is desperate for staff to do overtime. People are responding, but hospital workers were already exhausted and traumatised. They hadn’t recovered from the first wave, now they have been flung into the second one.

Lots of people are dying. Despite everything learned about better treatments since the pandemic started, almost 1,000 people have died in London during the last week. Warnings from hospitals that they could run out of oxygen bring dread.

Some things bring little pieces of hope though. The supply of PPE is better than last time. We have still had to fight for appropriate PPE to be available to all staff, but we have got there faster.

The Covid vaccination programme has also started. There is a mood among many staff that the vaccine can start to make a real difference to the fight against Covid, particularly the death rate. There is real enthusiasm to get as many people vaccinated, as quickly as possible. There is debate about how effective the vaccine will be leaving a longer gap between doses, but the truth is: no-one knows.

At the moment, enthusiasm is dominating, but there is still a wide layer of people who are sceptical of the vaccine, or waiting to see how others react before they decide to take it. A lot will depend on how many of the people waiting to see can be persuaded to take it. Government stunts like changing the gap between the first and second dose don’t help.

One of the staff working on the vaccination programme summed it up: “For months all we’ve been able to do is tell people: wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a mask. Now finally we can ask them to do something positive to help stop Covid: get vaccinated!”

Workers left to work with inadequate PPE, again!

A health worker at Southampton General

At the very beginning of the pandemic the advice to hospital workers was to use full PPE, head to foot! When it became clear we were going to have more than a few hundred cases the advice dramatically changed, and we were told this was only necessary when carrying out aerosol generated procedures like intubation.

Most of us felt the change of advice was more about supply than keeping us safe, but were glad we at least had enough surgical masks, aprons and gloves. Our hospital has kept staff well informed for the most part, but there’s definitely been a gap between what’s promised and what really happens. We were told that staff providing personal care could wear PPE which included face coverings and long sleeves, but many wards didn’t have the supply to keep this up, and staff were encouraged not to ‘waste’ PPE.

Recent news that Covid can stay in the air for long periods indoors, including in our closed wards, tells a very different story. Those of us working in emergency care are now supplied with FFP3 masks and hoods which are fit tested to each individual, but the situation on the wards and elsewhere in the hospital is far from adequate.

The local BBC news visited the hospital this week to show the public how busy we are and to highlight the dedicated work of our porters, infection control and cleaning teams. But all the staff shown were only wearing surgical masks which often gape at the sides. And this week’s figures for staff with Covid show it’s the elderly care wards, which are always short of staff and have very poor ventilation, that are most effected – 25 on one ward alone!

We are constantly told we must support the NHS. Well, staff feel we’ve been sold short and we definitely don’t feel supported by the politicians in Westminster. We need a massive increase in funding for the NHS, we need to sweep aside the leeching private sector, and we definitely need our union leaders to wake up and lead us into action for a 15% pay rise!

Staff shortages and lack of resources – a legacy of cuts and privatisation

Mental health worker in the South East

There were 100,000 vacancies in the NHS before the pandemic. Now there is even more demand on services. And currently 40,000 staff, including me, are off sick with Covid-19.

Staff have left the NHS because it is often not a pleasant place to work, patient care is viewed by management as a production line. People who enter their profession with hopes for the level of care they will be able to provide have those hopes destroyed.

High workload and low pay are big issues, and workers report widespread bullying and harassment from a hierarchical management. This is the consequence of austerity over many years from both Tory and Labour governments.

People are driven towards working in the private sector or to agency work where they are likely to find better pay and more flexibility and control over their working hours. These are staff that will have previously been trained by the NHS.

Understaffing is a big issue in the area of the South East that I work. Recruitment is hampered by potential staff being lured to work in or closer to London where they can receive a higher London-weighted pay. Meanwhile, the cost of living remains unaffordable for low-paid health workers in places like Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

We need to fight for a pay rise for all NHS staff of 15%. The union leadership should be campaigning on this now and calling a consultative ballot.

We have seen a failure of the NHS unions’ leadership to challenge the NHS management and government advisors. With the emergence of the new strain of the virus, the issue of adequate PPE has emerged again. Staff working in intensive care units are being provided with FFP3 masks which offer a better and closer fit. However, staff working in other Covid-19 wards, or in other areas of the health service, often wear just surgical masks.

To address staffing shortages during the pandemic we need to make training easier to access for staff. There are many workers in the health service with the skills and capabilities to be trained to assist with the pandemic. But we have to make sure that training is free and that training bursaries are reintroduced.

In NHS trusts with a strong union we are effective in winning improvements. Apprentices in our trust get the going rate for the job; this should be the case across the whole health service. We have fought to ensure that all agency staff employed in our trust get full pay when off sick or are forced to isolate. We need a fighting union leadership nationally to assist in fighting for better safety, pay, terms and conditions for all NHS workers, as well as demanding a fully funded, publicly owned NHS.

The Socialist Party demands

  • An emergency increase in funding for the NHS and social care
  • Full PPE for all staff, for production and distribution to be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control
  • Unions must mobilise for a 15% pay rise for NHS staff
  • For the scrapping of training fees and for free emergency training for staff to respond to the pandemic. Reintroduce training bursaries
  • For the NHS to take over private healthcare facilities to be run in the interests of all
  • Nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies, including the testing labs and vaccine production and distribution
  • For a socialist plan of production and workers’ control and management of the pandemic response