While emergency hospital services to treat the influx of patients with Covid-19 are now in overdrive, many routine NHS services have been suspended.
But as infection rates begin to subside and lockdown measures are eased, out-patient clinics and operations will begin to resume – but only when it is absolutely safe, Unite and other health unions have said.
The unions have teamed up to put forward a blueprint for reopening the NHS, one that puts staff, patient, and visitor safety as an absolute, number one priority.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe called the blueprint a “rocket booster for ministers to really get to grips with key elements of the pandemic”.
The nine-point roadmap includes a range of measures to ensure staff safety, including a guarantee on personal protective equipment (PPE) ensuring staff get all the protective kit they need when being in contact with coronavirus is unavoidable.
The demand for adequate PPE for all NHS staff comes after those health workers now on the coronavirus frontline have cried out for suitable protective kit.
Unite rep and paramedic Debbie Wilkinson told UniteLIVE last month how she and her colleagues have struggled to secure PPE.
“Everything is jam tomorrow. It will come but next week. There’s also huge difference in levels of PPE between different trusts,” she said.
Jarrett Thorpe said the continuing shortage of PPE “is a dark stain on the government’s response to the coronavirus emergency.
“We have ambulance, biomedical scientist, nursing and speech and language therapist (SALT) members telling us that there are still shortages and, in some cases, when it does arrive it is out-of-date, ill-fitting or not up to standard,” he added.
“We have feedback from our members that they are being leaned on by NHS bosses not to raise the PPE shortages – but Unite urges them to #staysafenot silent and to #telluswhatPPEyouneed.”
As part of the NHS blueprint, the 16 health unions have also called for risk assessments to be carried out for all staff – to apply social distancing, to help avoid contact with coronavirus whenever possible and when it is unavoidable, to manage contact safely.
These risk assessments should include every possible risk factor, including ethnicity – after it was revealed that people from Black and Asian minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have much higher death rates from Covid-19 than their white counterparts.
Commenting on the findings earlier this month, Unite national officer Harish Patel said, “Every weapon in the government’s armoury must be used to ensure that BAME communities are shielded from further tragedy during the pandemic.
“That goes for employers as well – far too many BAME members of the Unite family, including London bus drivers and NHS staff, have died while serving their country,” he added. “Meanwhile those continuing to serve remain at a greater risk than their white colleagues.”
There must be a proper testing regime in place before any reopening of NHS services takes place, the unions have also noted in their blueprint, one which gives staff unlimited access to testing and rapid results.
Jarrett-Thorpe said the government’s testing regime so far “totters between the shambolic and the messy”.
“There is little openness and transparency about how the government will hit its increased 200,000 daily test target,” he said. “We have thousands of healthcare science members who could be used to better effect and engaged more substantively, so we can avoid the situation where samples are sent to America for analysis.
“It appears that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing as the ‘test, track and trace’ initiative struggles to get off the ground in a meaningful way.”
The health unions have moreover called for a range of measures to ensure that all NHS staff are paid properly and are supported in achieving work/life balance. These measures include an extension of current Covid-19 pay arrangements so that staff get paid for all the hours they work, including applying overtime rates to hours over 37.5 hours a week.
All excess hours must be recorded and controlled, and long and rotating shifts must be constantly reviewed to prevent staff burnout. Working time regulations must be enforced, while staff should also be encouraged to take proper rest breaks and annual leave.
Parents working in the NHS must also be supported, with access to childcare, particularly for those who have pre-school children.
Above all, the government must make a clear statement of intent that the contribution of all NHS staff, no matter their roles, will be reflected in any future pay discussions.
The call for future pay rises for NHS staff, who have not only had to risk their lives on the frontline in the coronavirus epidemic but have faced nearly a decade of pay freezes and cuts, comes as a leaked document showed the government was considering a public sector pay freeze to pay for its coronavirus spending.
Jarrett-Thorpe said that members were “furious” that a public sector pay freeze could be on the cards to pay for the cost of the pandemic.
“If the Thursday ‘clap for carers’ means anything, it should be that there can be no return to the age of austerity,” he said. “More than 270 NHS and social care workers have died due to Covid-19 and hundreds of thousands more are risking their lives on a daily basis to care for others – yet this does not seem to stop Treasury mandarins drawing up heartless proposals to freeze public sector pay, which a recent Unite survey has shown the public does not want.”
The survey, carried out by pollster Survation for Unite, found that a strong majority of the public want key workers to be properly rewarded for all the work they’ve done in keeping the country afloat.
Asked to identify from a list of policy choices which should be the top priorities for the government following this crisis, the public overwhelmingly chose investment in the NHS, followed by more pay for key workers.
You can read the full text of the blueprint put forward by health unions here.
By Hajera Blagg