England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Get us gowns! The angry appeal from health and care workers

Join Socialist Alternative protesting for PPE

“These deaths are being normalised. But there is nothing normal about it. It’s become normal not to have PPE or to accept that the guidelines about what’s required is based on supply, not the science. It’s become normal to see healthcare workers dying. But it’s not normal. And we will step up and speak out.” – Doctor Meenal Viz, on her one-woman protest outside Downing Street

Shambolic. That’s the word that used to describe the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) by care bosses in a letter to the Department of Health leaked last week. And, if anything, events since have made this seem an understatement – with health and care workers paying the price.

Today a health minister confirmed that the shipment of PPE which had been delayed in Turkey over the weekend, leading to fears of an immediate shortfall in gowns, has arrived in the UK. But the consignment will include 400,000 gowns maximum, while the NHS alone uses 150,000 a day. So this is a drop in the ocean rather than any real breathing space. Meanwhile the government has responded to only 3,000 of 8,000 offers of supply of PPE from UK companies, and around the country health workers have made direct links with volunteers who are hand making as many gowns as they can from home for their local hospitals.

It’s clear that in the midst of this pandemic, the most basic items needed for health and care workers to safely perform their vital jobs are available on a hand-to-mouth basis only. This is starkly exposing the destructive chaos of capitalism to millions of workers and young people. Health workers arrive for shifts to be told promised gowns have been redirected to other facilities last minute. They nervously check the news each day to see whether Donald Trump has gazumped the UK for tomorrow’s supplies of facemasks. What an indictment of this system! A democratically, publicly owned system of production and distribution of medical supplies would allow a plan, including emergency stocks and rapid redirection, to meet need.

In care homes the situation is likely to be even more intense – fully protective gowns are not part of usual supplies in the care sector so they often have no possibility of even shuffling limited supplies around. It’s unquestionable that many care workers are already working with Covid patients without the proper PPE they need. Socialist Alternative is already aware of at least one case where care home workers have collectively refused to work with Covid patients who the home management were trying to have returned from hospital while still infectious, threatening the health and lives of staff and other residents.

These are the agonising situations that seem to inevitably stand before thousands of health and care workers, already exhausted from working in intense and traumatising conditions battling the virus. Public Health England, along with local hospital managements, have made various claims about the safety of alternatives to the normal guidelines – for example re-using masks or washing single-use gowns. This won’t be unquestioningly accepted by health professionals, as indicated by Dr Viz’s comment above.

One ICU consultant told the BBC: “There was joint statement from several of the Royal Colleges that says we cannot identify the evidence that confirms that reused masks provide the same protection as new masks. If one of my juniors were to say to me ‘I’ve been asked to reuse a mask and go and treat a critically ill patient confirmed to have Covid 19, do you think that’s a good idea? I personally within my intensive care unit would say no that’s not acceptable.” It seems likely that if and when supplies of one component of PPE run out in a hospital, workers may be forced to collectively decide they are unable to carry out their roles until some is made available.

This would clearly be a devastating step for staff to have to take. But as Dr Viz said: “We are not children asking for Christmas presents. We are asking for help protecting our safety so that we can protect the public.” Workers in the NHS and social care must not be cannon fodder for this virus. What’s more, every one of their lives lost is one less person able to care for and treat others. One nurse told us: “It’s not just about this round of patients, we have to think about the next round, the next peak, and all the future patients we can help if we’re not sick or worse.”

We should be prepared for emergency solidarity action if and when workers are forced to take these kind of steps. We should also find ways to express outrage at the situation now:


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