'An army with no general'

Unite AGS Steve Turner: we need leadership on PPE for frontline workers

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Our country is on course to suffer the greatest loss of life to the corona virus in Europe.

We’re a nation in shock – but we’re also a nation without a clear lead on how we protect the NHS heroes battling to save us from this invisible killer.

Over the weekend, two Oxford hospital porters tragically joined the roll call of the dead.

 Matt Hancock’s insinuation that NHS front line staff were being fast and loose with PPE caused jaws to drop and anger to rise across the country.  Priti Patel’s non-apology only added insult to injury.  

NHS workers are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe from this dreadful disease.  Fifteen hour shifts, six days at least a week, in gruelling and traumatic conditions.  

Unite member, Ellen, a nurse, says the health secretary’s comments may actually be dangerous.  Health care staff should not be expected to have to think twice about staying safe.

Quite frankly, nurses and doctors – and workers at risk anywhere for that matter  – should able to decide their PPE needs without unhelpful comments from a far away minister.  

 The government should be totally engaged, sleeves rolled up in the procurement, production and supply of PPE to frontline workers.  Instead we have mixed messages and no central leadership.

Unite has been proud to work with employers and individuals around the country to create a volunteer `army’ to manufacture the millions of pieces of protective kit so desperately needed in our hospitals, warehouses, garages and factories.

But this is an army with no general. 

From the tailor in Glasgow making scrubs for the NHS to Unite members in Airbus building ventilators for those with breathing difficulties, there are hundreds of people working around the clock to meet health care needs.
But they’re doing this without any government leadership.  

I’ve spoken to businesses who say that governments in other countries snatch their hands off when they offer the needed equipment. Yet when they try to speak to our government, their calls just go into a black hole.  People are even paying for the raw materials themselves so they can do their bit to make the kit to keep people safe.

This is not good enough.  This is no time to `leave it to the market’.  The protection of life comes before whatever political beliefs a government may hold.

That is why Unite is calling for a Minister for PPE and Testing, responsible to the PM, to knock the government machine into shape.

Given that the health secretary has been slammed by all the health professionals for his comments, this task has to be given to an independent minister – with the funds and clout to deliver.

There is one other demand that Unite is making and it’s this; it’s time now for an inquiry into the government’s approach to the provision of PPE and testing.  Why are we still not testing at the same rate as other nations?

Twenty-one NHS workers, fourteen transport workers, and who knows how many more front line workers across the economy have lost their lives in recent days.  In their honour, this country now has to ask the tough questions.

Lessons must be learned and improvements made so that our nation, the sixth biggest economy on the planet, is never again falling short when it comes to the protection of its people.

  • This comment by Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary, first appeared in the Mirror on April 14.

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