With nearly all Covid restrictions lifted last month, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pandemic had magically vanished overnight.
But the latest figures show that Covid cases are on the rise once again, with one in every 25 people in England, one in 13 in Northern Ireland, one in 18 in Scotland and one in 30 in Wales estimated to have Covid in the week to March 5.
Spikes in cases in many European countries have sparked concerns that Europe could be entering a sixth wave of the Covid pandemic. On Monday (March 14), health secretary Sajid Javid warned that people should brace themselves for rising case rates.
Frontline NHS workers know more than anyone just how far we are from going back to true ‘normality’ – and according to them, the pandemic is far from over.
‘The picture is still very grim’
This week, UniteLive caught up with Unite rep and biomedical scientist Ian Evans, who said that he and his colleagues have never been busier.
“The picture is still very grim – colleagues are broken and tired,” he said. “We’re still getting a lot of Covid work but we’re also expected to take on other routine work as well. GP surgeries are opening up more and more so they’re providing us with even more work. They’re experiencing huge staff shortages so they’re expecting us to pick up some of their additional work at a time when we are also struggling with staff shortages.”
Ian manages phlebotomists – staff who take patients’ bloods – and the extra work they’ve had to do to support GPs has in many ways created chaos.
“There are queues outside the doors and there’s no social distancing,” he said. “We also don’t know whether or not the external service users coming in have Covid. For patients who come in as in-patients, we can swab and check them and know what condition they’re in.
“But with the spillover work we’re doing, with many of the external patients coming in, we just don’t know. They get belligerent as well because they don’t feel they have to wear a mask anymore. They don’t sit apart. It’s putting staff at risk. It’s not easy.”
Ian said the biggest challenge now is lack of staff.
“To achieve the extra workload we really need to increase our staffing by 30 per cent but it’s difficult because they’re not out there; they’re not available,” he explained. “We’ve had to rely on untrained staff to do scientific analysis and hope that someone can authorise the result and get it out. We are over reliant on bank and agency workers, which is leaving us in us a continuous state of precarious staffing levels.”
He worries that when free Covid testing ends on April 1, the pressure will only continue to build and the risks to staff and patients will increase.
“After the first of April, the Trust itself will have to find money to test staff – money that it just doesn’t have. Our big fear is that if staff have to pay for tests themselves, they won’t because many of them simply won’t be able to afford it. Even if staff themselves don’t get very ill, if they unknowingly catch Covid and come into work, there’s the risk of exposing vulnerable patients.”
Cost of living crisis
Ian said the cost of living crisis is also having a major impact on the recruitment and retention crisis, especially among low-paid but absolutely vital roles such as phlebotomists.
“Brighton, where I work, is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK outside of London. Most health workers don’t live in the heart of the city because they can’t afford to, so many of them rely on driving to work. With fuel prices going through the roof, our staff are being hit hard. Even those who take the bus are also impacted – the price of everything is going up including bus tickets.”
Exacerbating the cost of living crisis for pathology support workers who are mostly low-paid is the fact that their pay isn’t keeping up with rising prices. Many staff who received a three per cent pay rise last year were forced onto to a new tax bracket, which means in April, they’ll be doubly hit by both rising costs and national insurance tax hikes. With pay rises being swallowed up by rising inflation and tax, these workers will actually be far worse off than they were two years ago.
“Low-paid NHS workers will be better off working somewhere else without the constant stress,” Ian explained. “If you’re skilled enough to get a job as a phlebotomist, you’re skilled enough to get a job somewhere else that pays the same or more quite easily. So people will just go get a job elsewhere not only because they can make the same money but because their quality of life will also improve.”
‘Pay us properly’
Ian slammed the government for lifting all Covid restrictions far too soon.
“We still have a large number of Covid positive patients,” he told UniteLive. “Covid is still out there and the pandemic is ongoing. Yes the mortality rate is a lot lower but it’s too soon. The government does not listen to the science. They listen to the finance people – to the bankers. They don’t listen to the staff who actually work in hospitals. They don’t listen to the people who actually deliver care.”
UniteLive has long reported on the funding and staffing crises that have eaten away at the NHS under successive Tory governments. But as Ian points out, these problems have accelerated during the pandemic, and both staff and patients will continue to suffer if action is not taken.
“We can’t get sufficient staff at any level,” he said. “Whether it’s highly trained scientists, paramedics, doctors, nurses – they’re not available and they’re not going to be available. This means patient care is just going to get worse and it will be rushed.
“People will get stuck in hospitals because there’s nowhere in the community for them to go. More and more people who don’t need to go to hospital will come via A&E because their GP doesn’t have time to see them. If they end up here, then we can’t get them discharged and the waiting list will just grow and grow.”
Ultimately, Ian says the government must address the recruitment and retention crisis if the NHS is to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.
“If they say they’re going to recruit, they must recruit properly – that means recruiting staff at the right rate, at the right band for the right profession,” he said. “And most of all, pay us properly – give us the pay that we deserve.”
Stay tuned on UniteLive for more stories of our NHS members.
By Hajera Blagg