Healthcare workers are on the front line of the Covid-19 crisis. Their role, coming into close contact with hundreds of people every day, puts them at huge risk. Across the world, healthcare workers are dying of Coronavirus. But in the NHS, workers are being pressured to care for patients suspected of having the disease with inadequate Personal Protective Equipment.
Massive shortages of FFP3 face masks pose serious danger, not only to health workers themselves but also the wider public. If health workers contract Covid-19, transmitting it to their colleagues and patients in the process, hundreds of thousands could die needlessly. However, the PPE problem goes beyond a simple one of demand outstripping supply. There is no central manufacturer of PPE for the NHS. Local trusts, through the NHS supply chain, source equipment from a variety of companies. Competing companies produce masks to make profit and health workers have to be individually trained and fitted for each make of mask. NHS bosses are rolling out training at a glacial pace. At the moment, workers don’t know from one day to the next, which, if any, masks with be available because of the chaotic, unplanned market driven system which dictates the availability of life saving equipment. The threat of exposure to Coronavirus is creating a deep anxiety among NHS workers. This is compounded by looking at the experience of our co-workers across the world, especially Italy, where services have been completely overwhelmed, leading to a rapidly mounting death toll.
Spending hours in hot PPE, which restricts breathing for the wearer, and working under extreme pressure is also a serious threat to the mental health of those on the front line. Before this crisis, nurses were already an at-risk group for suicides, with one dying everyday ten days on average. At any one time, under the impact of austerity, one in seven nurses in critical care were experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The impact of this new crisis on the mental health of NHS workers is likely to be severe. There is an urgent need for investment into mental health services and NHS employers must rapidly upsize their occupational health support, including training specialised counsellors and therapists. Although not written into law, nurse-to-patient ratios which have been strictly upheld in critical care departments, are now flying out the window, in an attempt to expand capacity. Physical space is not the only constraint, nor is the number of ventilators. Unable to access a Covid-19 test, any critical care worker with a cough or fever is currently stuck in self-isolation. As the supply of staff decreases with sickness and self isolation, the demand being placed upon the service is ballooning. This is creating exhausting, dangerous working conditions in which mistakes will be made. Employers and professional regulators such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the General Medical Council need to provide written assurances that no worker will be liable for the conditions created by this global pandemic following a decade of austerity.
Before the crisis, the world was already undergoing a chronic and worsening global nursing shortage. In Britain, 44,000 nursing posts stand vacant. After a decade of wage suppression, nurses voted with their feet and when the Tories removed the bursary, they cut off all hope of reversing the decline in numbers. Those left now face a pandemic, with inadequate resources, which will have severe consequences for all of us. Trade unions need to demand danger-money for those risking their own health to hold the NHS together. Unions must demand oversight of the PPE distribution process and ensure the highest standards of health and safety for all healthcare workers. If employers are unable to keep staff safe, then workers need to establish their own committees and take control of the situation, democratically planning the manufacturing and distribution of life saving equipment in order to protect the service and society.