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What they’re not telling you about Covid-19 and the NHS

Holly Johnston is a nurse in oncology, an #NHSPay15 campaigner and a GMB union rep.

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Holly Johnston says that nurses are working in an "already overwhelmed NHS under a government that doesn't prioritise the safety of its workers."

The full toll the pandemic has taken on the NHS and its workforce is yet to be seen. But we can predict that the ongoing impact will be huge. Before the pandemic, the NHS had 100,000 vacancies which was set to rise to 250,000 by 2030. Now as many as one in three workers are considering leaving the health service, with the pandemic highlighting the financial problems, PTSD and strain on mental health that many of us face.

On the frontline, we're seeing whole wards wiped out with staff sickness. When an area has an outbreak, it’s brought to its knees. This isn't because of a lack of effort from staff – we're simply working in an already overwhelmed NHS under a government that doesn't prioritise the safety of its workers. Hospitals across England are now more likely to reach capacity. This compounds the problem of bed availability in England, which has halved over the last 30 years.

I work as a frontline nurse. Throughout my 17 years in the NHS, I started to realise that slow privatisation and underfunding is happening right under our noses. I saw bed numbers dwindling. I saw the increasing need for agency staff. I started to question why staffing was in that position in the first place, and the intrinsic link between patient safety and investing in staff recruitment and retention. I saw ambulance service colleagues in new uniforms for private firms. I saw the centralisation of some services and the closure of others. I saw the increase in zero-hours contracts and the outsourcing of departments like HR.

Hospitals are relying on the good will of already exhausted staff to pick up overtime, or on agency workers who are moved from area to area without routinely being swabbed. Workers employed on private contracts lose their rights and protections. Zero-hours contracts are becoming more common in the NHS – staff have no sick pay, their work-life balance is impacted because they feel like they can't say no to a shift and there’s an impact on mental health. They struggle to plan their lives or budget their income.

At the last count, almost 1,000 healthcare workers had sadly lost their lives to Covid-19. Healthcare workers are three to four times more likely to contract Covid-19, and the resulting pressure on the NHS is huge. One in ten go on to develop long Covid. It's worrying to think what the workforce of the future will look like without urgent funding, investment in staffing, the end of outsourcing and better conditions for workers.

Healthcare workers have had a real terms pay cut of 15-20% in the last decade. Pay is directly linked to staffing and patient safety. Why run up huge debts to train as a nurse to then do a job that’s underpaid and undervalued? If there are no staff left, there will no longer be an NHS.

Our roles are expanding. Each position in the NHS has taken on more responsibility – not least support workers, who are often paid minimum wage. Pay campaigns such as #NHSPAY15, run by NHS Workers Say NO!, and Nurses United are fighting for a restorative payrise for healthcare staff. We expect to receive a pay offer in the coming months of around 2-3%. The mood on the ground is anger, and we’re organising for potential industrial action.

Staff were made into heroes early in the pandemic. Public support was gratefully received by NHS workers and it boosted morale – we are brave, we do the job for little recognition of our skills and for not enough pay. However, the hero-making from the government was just dangerous rhetoric. It normalised NHS workers dying and played on imagery of us heading into battle, while ignoring the fundamental issues that made us ill-prepared for such a battle in the first place. Decades of cuts, underfunding and outsourcing have all played a part in how unprepared we were – not forgetting the advice that was ignored after the outbreak of SARS in 2003.

The vulnerability of frontline workers is becoming clearer as information surrounding dodgy PPE contracts and the sheer cronyism of the Tory party comes to light. The science around how Covid-19 is transmitted has been around for a while, yet Public Health England (PHE) and the government refuse to update the PPE guidance. It’s become evident that Covid-19 is airborne, meaning surgical masks and visors don’t provide adequate protection. The correct level of PPE includes respirator masks, goggles and FFP3. The PHE guidance was based on what was available rather than what was needed, and as a result frontline staff have been lambs to the slaughter.

With the scientific evidence in mind, let’s look at the rationale behind opening schools prematurely. Teachers are in an extremely vulnerable position, and although children are less likely to die from Covid-19 or be symptomatic, they’re still spreaders. It’s emerging that many are developing long Covid. Opening schools in a non-staggered way will put even more pressure on an already exhausted NHS. It doesn't help that local councils, such as my own in Sheffield which is Labour run, did not listen to the concerns of education unions and actually agreed to schools reopening in January. Fortunately we saw a government U-turn thanks to pressure applied by the National Education Union.

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Holly campaigning against the proposed 1% pay offer fir NHS staff.

Steve Chapman.

The UK must now recognise long Covid as an occupational disease, as France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark have done. It's vital that workers receive ongoing support and adequate sick pay, and that the process for claiming compensation is uncomplicated.

Matt Hancock says he wants to integrate the NHS, social care and local government while getting support "closer to the front line". The proposals do not address the issue of adequate funding, or the previous Tory reforms and years of privatisation. They allow greater private sector involvement, which will create a division between NHS commissioners holding the budgets and representatives of the private sector who will sit on new local care bodies. This will weaken democratic accountability in the NHS.

We don't doubt that outsourcing will continue despite its failures, and that contracts will still be handed out to the Tories’ mates. The health department have said the reforms will deliver on their manifesto commitments, including 50,000 more nurses and 40 new hospitals. This will not happen unless staffing is properly addressed, which means bringing the NHS under democratic control and funding it properly.

The government needs to be held accountable. We need to support a Covid inquiry and fight for justice. We need to get behind workers and campaigners in this country and build power in our unions. We need to fight for a system that protects our NHS and prioritises the safety of its workers. We need to demand that our MPs fight on issues that affect the lives of workers and the struggles they face. We must use the serious issues the pandemic has highlighted to push forward with energy and boldness. We will not forget.

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