'We've got to stand up for ourselves'

Low-paid Barts NHS Trust staff, denied a Covid bonus, speak out in fight for justice

Reading time: 7 min

All of us can remember the fear and uncertainty that collectively gripped the UK when the pandemic first hit. But for Unite rep and Barts hospital domestic assistant Mirela, that fear will never leave her.

Mirela and her colleagues were among the first frontline health workers to come face to face with the virus. Barts Hospital, after all, treated the UK’s very first Covid patient.  

Mirela recalls the fear of seeing patient doors marked ‘Covid’, doors which she and other domestic assistants had no choice but to enter. That’s because more than a year before the Covid vaccine was developed, the only line of defense against spreading the virus – in tandem with isolation – was cleaning.

“Without us, the hospital would not have been able to run,” Mirela tells UniteLive. “It was very traumatic for us. I remember having to clean patient rooms multiple times a day with a special solution – at first we didn’t have proper PPE which was very scary. But even when we did get better PPE, it was so hard doing our jobs wearing the equipment. I remember sweating so much.”

Unite rep and Barts hospital domestic assistant Mirela

Mirela describes the utter chaos that engulfed the hospital at a time when there was so little knowledge of Covid.

“People were running around everywhere – always running. Everyone was confused and stressed. And even with all this confusion, you had to do your work. You had to keep going.”

Mirela said she’ll never forget seeing patients die before her eyes.

Unite rep Maria, also a domestic worker for Barts NHS Trust at Whipps Cross hospital, agreed.

“We saw so many patients die,” Maria said. “Just walking to the kitchen, you’d see patient after patient dying in the corridors.”

One day at the beginning of the pandemic, Maria recalls, she had served a patient breakfast in the morning and had returned later in the day to serve them lunch.

“The curtain was drawn but no one had told me – I pulled the curtain back to find the patient already dead. That day I broke down. I told my manager I wanted to go home.  They took me into the kitchen to calm me down. I try to forget it.”

Unite rep and Whipps Cross hospital domestic worker Maria

Thursday evening clapping sessions were cold comfort for these traumatised, low-paid workers whose jobs were absolutely vital during the pandemic.  And while no amount of money can begin to repay the sacrifices frontline health staff made, a Covid ‘thank you’ bonus, agreed last year, would have gone a long way in giving them the dignity and respect they deserve.

But because of an absurd technicality, Mirela, Maria and hundreds of other domestic and facilities staff at Barts NHS Trust have missed out on this bonus.

During the pandemic, these Barts Trust staff were at the time employed by outsourcing firm Serco. Last year, thanks to a Unite campaign, they were brought back into the NHS. But since a phased transfer was agreed, some staff will be transferred over to NHS contracts after the arbitrary, imposed March 31 cut-off date for receiving the Covid bonus.

This has left these former Serco staff in the totally unfair position where some workers, who happened to be transferred to NHS contracts before the cut-off date, have received the bonus, while others – their colleagues from the very same workforce — have been left with nothing.

So far NHS bosses have rejected their demands for the bonus, worth more than £1600, and have refused to ask the Treasury for additional funding to cover the payment.

For Mirela and Maria, this is a huge slap in the face for loyal frontline staff who risked their lives to help others.

“It’s left us feeling very bad about the situation – we feel let down,” Maria told UniteLive.

“We feel totally unrecognised and unappreciated,” Mirela added. “We keep thinking, why us? It wasn’t our decision to be transferred after the cut-off date.”

But Maria, Mirela and nearly 1,000 others at Barts Trust aren’t about to simply seethe in anger –they’ve turned this anger into action. Since autumn last year, they’ve taken multiple days of strike action. Most recently, they downed tools last month and are determined to keep on fighting.

Mirela told UniteLive that being on strike – and as a rep, encouraging the workforce to stick to their guns – hasn’t been easy.

“But I tell my members, we’ve got to stand up for ourselves. Yes, the bonus is important.  Our wages are so low and the cost of living has really hit us. The lump-sum payment would make a huge difference for us and our families. But it’s not just about the money. It’s also about standing up for equality.”

Maria noted that recruiting new members during the dispute has been at the top of her agenda.

“You’ve got to put in the work every day – but it pays off. We’ve recruited many more members at Whipps Cross since December – it’s a new record. There’s a lot of anger towards the Trust. People feel very strongly about how they’ve treated us – we feel discriminated against.”

As tough as it’s been for Barts NHS Trust staff to keep fighting in the face of their bosses’ and NHS England’s intransigence, there is hope – Unite has campaigned and won across numerous trusts over the last year for workers who’ve been similarly denied the Covid lump-sum bonus.

Most recently, catering, restaurant, patient food services and admin staff employed by outsourcing firm Mitie at hospitals in Dudley, East Midlands, won the Covid lump-sum payment earlier this week. The win came after a concerted Unite campaign that included strike action.  

This was preceded by another victory in February, when low-paid staff employed by 2Gether Solutions, a wholly owned subsidiary of East Kent NHS Trust, also won the Covid lump-sum payment after a series of strikes.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham described the victory as “wake-up call for other trusts and providers in the NHS who are refusing to make similar payments — we will fight you and we will win.”

This ‘wake-up call’ was heard loud and clear at a protest outside the Department of Health in February, where striking staff, armed with mops and buckets, called on Barts NHS Trust and the government to “clean up their mess” and give staff their due.

There was a jubilant air of defiance at the demo, and Mirela said afterwards that she’s both hopeful and exasperated at the injustice of it all.  

“Maybe if they made a TV series about us like they did about the postmasters, people would listen,” she said.

But if the groundswell of public support these Covid heroes have received — at the demo, online and in the media — is anything to go by, the fact is, people are listening. It’s only NHS bosses and the government who’re left – the ball, Mirela and Maria said, is squarely in their court.  

By Hajera Blagg