'Stay safe not silent'

Unite teams up with Frontline Live platform to ensure health and care workers get the PPE they need

Reading time: 8 min

Protective kit for frontline workers in health and social care hit the headlines in a big way in March and early April. But since then, the story has receded from the news agenda.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the PPE crisis is over – but far from it. Workers in both the NHS and in social care settings are still crying out for adequate equipment to keep them safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed hundreds of their colleagues’ lives.

And now it has come to light that many essential workers fear reprimand for making their PPE shortages public.

To help ensure health and social care workers get the PPE they need, Unite has now teamed up with Frontline Live – a platform, built and run by volunteers, that hosts the first-ever national map of real-time PPE needs from the frontline.

Frontline Live is easy to use and the premise is simple, explains the platform’s founder Katz Kiely.

“If you work on the frontline in health and social care and you’re short of PPE, you tweet #FrontlineMap, followed by a hashtag with your postcode and another hashtag with your PPE needs,” she said. “For those who feel safer to make requests anonymously, we have a form on the website as well.”

Frontline Live has produced a how-to video which you can watch below:

The data helps connect workers seeking PPE with suppliers who can get the protective kit to them fast. Already the platform has helped source thousands of items of PPE and has connected more than 120 PPE suppliers with frontline workers.

‘There is a clear need’

Katz, an entrepreneur with a background in open data, data visualisation and digital innovation tells Unite how it all started.

“When the coronavirus pandemic first came to the UK, I started noticing, as an avid Twitter user, that there was a lot of noise around the fact that healthcare workers were having to go to work without the protection they needed to keep them safe.

“A friend of mine who is a senior nurse said she was going to work and she didn’t have a mask. It’s at this point that the issue becomes real. By God, even going into a supermarket without a mask is nerve-wracking – the idea that people are going into high-risk situations like hospital without protection is horrific.”

Amid this huge rise in demand for PPE, Katz also saw the supply side of the equation; lots of small businesses were pivoting their production amid the pandemic to produce PPE while others were raising money to get the PPE produced and distributed.

“So there was a clear need – lots of people on the frontline shouting into space saying “I need help”. And the other side, people saying ‘We’re here to help; where are you?’”

“Then I thought, I wonder if I can quickly pull together a way for frontline need to be aggregated so suppliers can see where they are and get them what they need quickly?”

With help from data mapping experts at University College London (UCL)’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis she figured a way forward and rounded up a passionate group of volunteers – “a tribe of expert technologists, creatives, and digital gurus who gave up weekends, early mornings and late nights” — and before they knew it Frontline Live was up and running by mid-April.

Katz and her colleagues made a shocking discovery soon after Frontline Live was launched. It turned out that people were terrified of publicly reporting PPE shortages using Twitter – so they offered a form so those in need could report anonymously. 80 per cent of the requests made at Frontline Live have been made anonymously.

‘Nobody should feel unsafe going to work’

“Since we realised this, we have changed our messaging to ‘Stay safe not silent’,” Katz explained. “Nobody in this country in the 21st century should be going into work feeling unsafe. And worse than that if they’re not feeling safe, the fact that they’re being told to shut up for danger of reprimand is downright inhumane.”

Frontline Live has continued to grow and now also has a certification process to ensure that the PPE they help source is of the highest quality. As they continue to get their name out there – media partners like the Times newspaper and Snapchat have sponsored the movement – there was one thing Frontline Live was missing.

“We’re just volunteers and we’re relatively unknown so we needed credible organisations that can tell frontline staff, ‘It’s okay. You should absolutely report shortages in PPE’.”

That’s where Unite has come in.

“We approached Unite specifically because the union has a substantial number of healthcare workers and because it has a really good reputation,” Katz noted. “In my first conversation with [Unite national officer for health] Colenzo [Jarrett-Thorpe] I learned that Unite was already asking its members to report PPE shortages so we already had the same aims.”

Unite has introduced the union’s members, activists and officers to Frontline Live and has encouraged them to use the platform to report PPE shortages. The union is also working with the platform’s volunteers to supply them with information about PPE shortages and help get PPE to the frontline.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be partnering with Unite,” Katz said. “We know this is exactly what we need to gain the credibility, the access, the reach and trust  from the people we built this platform for.”

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe agreed.

“It’s amazing to be supporting an initiative like Frontline Live; to do our own bit to help such amazing volunteer-run projects like this,” he said.

“There needs to be a voice for frontline workers to highlight what’s happening and make sure they get the PPE they need. That’s the role Unite is now playing, and Frontline Live dovetails perfectly with our goals. The overriding message of Frontline Live – ‘stay safe, not silent’ – is in line with our campaign so it really is the perfect match. We look forward to working with them to help continue building the most up-to-date map of PPE shortages.”

‘We need to be flexible and agile’

Katz emphasised that Frontline Live’s raison d’être was not to replace traditional procurement systems but to act as additional support in times of crisis.

“What we’re saying is procurement systems would be sufficient if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. But sometimes crises happen and you need to be flexible and agile. We’re helping to bypass some of the bureaucracy to make sure people get vital PPE at the speed at which they need it.”

As an open source project, Frontline Live is free and Katz said they’re “giving it to anyone who wants to use it and run with it”.

“It’s a prototype for a more resilient rapid response mechanism. Mapping real time need is very necessary and we’re hoping our model can be used around the world. I’m a huge believer in the idea that if you can see a problem – if it isn’t hidden – people can rally around to solve it.”

You can find out more about Frontline Live on their website here.

You can also watch a video here where colorectal surgeon Dr Maryam Alfa-Wali explains why no one should be afraid to report PPE shortages.

By Hajera Blagg

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