By now, the failings of the government’s PPE regime are now well known. Workers are suffering and dying from the government’s failure to prepare for a pandemic. This has lead to shortages in our NHS, social care and other key industries.
But it is one thing hearing about these failings, and it is another having been in hospital and seen how much is going wrong in hospitals with PPE.
I was hospitalised with Covid-19 recently after suffering severely with the virus and I would not be here without the care and attention shown to me by NHS heroes from around the world.
In Kingston Hospital, where I was hospitalised, a memo was issued just days after I was discharged warning that PPE was running so low that all non-critical wards were asked not to use disposable gowns, and, even with this change, it was predicted that the supply of disposable gowns would run out by the end of the week.
Luckily, other London hospitals were able to share their supply of PPE with Kingston Hospital – but this is not the way we should be treating doctors, nurses and hospital workers risking their lives to help people recover from Covid-19.
Even when Kingston Hospital did have supplies, the PPE that they had was inadequate for the demands of a pandemic – it was ineffective and uncomfortable. At Kingston the blue gowns came in medium and large. The medium was in effect a large so that nurses had to ruff it up and tie it around their waist and try to pull sleeves up. Why can’t there be garments manufactured which actually fit?
Normally in hospital my understanding is that doctors, nurses, physios wear different colour uniforms/scrubs to help differentiate each other in emergency situations, yet at the moment everyone is wearing the same battle-ready blue uniforms. It would be easy to wear coloured armbands to differentiate and immediately show who is who on the Covid battlefield.
The 3m masks seemed popular with some nurses but others thought they were too full on which some didn’t like. One nurse in my ward told me they had run out of these and now said they had these really strange shaped white masks which were slightly pointed and pinched down on their noses so were really uncomfortable and the nurses had nicknamed them duck bills because that’s exactly what they look like.
The other normal blue masks, with the four or five folds are much thinner and I think they replace them every couple of hours but they can also be uncomfortable. One nurse told me that the ribbon at the top had minute fibres which were shedding from it and were going up her nostrils and really irritate her nose and affecting her breathing.
Johnson seems to think of himself as a Churchillian leader – he has written an autobiography of Churchill and appears to even try to mimic his mannerisms. But for all the failures of strategy and protective equipment in this pandemic, a more accurate wartime analogy is WW1, where many British casualties were caused by the failures of the ruling class.
Day and night Johnson and his cabinet are blowing their whistles in the trenches and sending wave after wave of our NHS heroes from around the world “over the top” with no protection at all. Those that survive then clamber back into the trench to wait for the whistle to be blown again the following day.
Doing ‘their duty’
I thanked three of my nurses in my ward for their help and support, they told me it was what they signed up for, it was their duty. In acts of solidarity, NHS workers from across the whole hospital are voluntarily working in Covid-19 wards to help and support their colleagues in these highly dangerous environments. Again, they saw it as their duty to help their colleagues and our society in this time.
Well, it’s our duty as trade unionists to protect all of our key workers, Unite assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, and other comrades in Unite have been calling for a minister for PPE and Testing, and the government recently announced the appointment of a PPE ‘tsar’.
But we are still seeing major problems with PPE from out of date stock to the debacle of the delayed RAF flight from Turkey which when it eventually arrived in the UK all 400,000 gowns were impounded after it was found they did not confirm to UK standards.
As Steve Turner says, “Our members are desperate to play their part. To use their skills, engineering and manufacturing expertise to ramp up production – under licence from existing UK manufacturers that simply can’t cope with demand or secure essential supplies given the unprecedented international demands on raw materials and components. And of course, our workplaces will be safe and operating in accordance to the most stringent public health guidance.
“Millions of PPE kits are urgently needed to supply UK industry, but there is also the scope for our manufacturers to export excess to wherever it is needed.
“We simply need the government to give the signal for UK Plc to swing into action. Unions are about keeping people in work, secure and safe, so it is intensely frustrating to have plants and people standing idle and underused when they could be put to great use in defence of the public’s health.”
Much more to be done
But there is still much more to be done by the government: key workers are risking their lives to keep our society going, but the government seems not to appreciate this. They were unwilling to prepare adequately for a pandemic due to the brutalising and ideologically-driven austerity of the last 10 years. But they were willing to pursue a reckless herd immunity strategy that, in Johnson’s own words, would lead to many more families losing loved ones before their time.
In response to the easing of the lockdown and the confused mixed messages given by Johnson and his government on May 10, and the written guidance given the following day, Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey responded, “Importantly, this guidance signals to employers that they should work with trade union specialists to keep workplaces and workers safe.
“Union health and safety representatives are highly skilled and ready to assist the national effort to keep workers safe. Again, I say to the government, there are tens of thousands of union safety specialists than can be enlisted to assist employers and the Health and Safety Executive in a concerted approach to eliminate the spread of the virus and fulfil the prime minister’s call to make workplaces corona virus secure.”
Len continued, “Unite has lost transport members to this awful disease. In their honour and in honour of all those workers who have died because of corona, we ask that much more is done to ensure that working people are safe to get to and from work including staggered work times.
“Crucially, employers must not pressurise workers to imperil themselves and others by crowding on to buses, trains or tubes. Unite will protect every member who decides that they cannot work because either their journey to their workplace or the workplace itself are not safe,” he added.
I’m sure that when history books are written in the future they will record ‘Butcher Boris’ Johnson and his cabinet as the most incompetent and evil government the Tory party has ever inflicted upon us.
Our NHS heroes from around the world really are Lions and Lionesses led by donkeys.
Another world is possible. We must make sure we grasp this moment, reset the world and make it a better, fairer place to live, work and be for all. We owe it to our amazing key workers and NHS heroes those who have tragically died during this pandemic, ourselves and our kids futures.
Danny Freeman is Unite London and Eastern region’s education organiser @DannyUnite