Never in recent years has International Workers’ Memorial Day – which takes place every year on April 28 – been so poignant, or so necessary. As the world is gripped by a global pandemic, far too many health and other essential workers have died in recent weeks in the line of duty.
Among health and social care workers in the UK alone, the latest official figures show that 78 NHS staff and 16 carers have lost their lives after succumbing to Covid-19 – and it is understood that these numbers could in fact be much higher.
As the health worker death toll continues to climb amid the coronavirus epidemic, UniteLIVE catches up with Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe.
Colenzo heads one of the largest sectors in Unite as it battles an unprecedented crisis. He and his colleagues are working together around the clock to challenge the government and other public bodies to protect health workers.
Recalling when the lockdown first began, Colenzo said Unite’s health sector was busy at work preparing long before.
“We knew even before Covid-19 arrived in the UK that it would have huge implications for our members when it did arrive,” he explained. “As we saw lockdowns put into place all over the world well before the UK government took action, quite frankly, we felt a lockdown here was inevitable.
“Still we didn’t know how we would react because we’ve never done this before – this is truly an unprecedented situation. We knew it would completely change how we as union officers work and present tremendous challenges in how we communicate with our members. Initially we had to rely on our members in our national health sector committee to pick up the issues and feed them through to us as they came up.”
Colenzo and his team had early successes on a number of issues – a key one being a joint-union effort which successfully secured free car parking for health staff in England.
Thanks to union pressure, the government pledged early on in the crisis to provide NHS trusts with the money so they can offer free parking to its staff in hospitals, while they also promised to make sure health staff, social care workers and volunteers can provide evidence to display in their cars to avoid any charges.
Colenzo explained how NHS car parking charges has long been an issue for Unite, and the union hopes to press the government to maintain free parking for all NHS staff after the crisis is resolved.
“Of course there were already a number of NHS trusts in England where parking was free but that’s where we step in as national officers. Instead of approaching individual trusts, if we put the right pressure on the right people in Westminster, then it is something we can secure for all our members across the sector.”
Colenzo said his biggest frustration amid the coronavirus crisis is the stark differences between how the health service is run in England and the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“There’s huge fragmentation and disorganisation in the English system compared with what’s going on in the devolved regions,” he said. “The English system is suffering after years of neglect by the political elite – and at no time has this become more apparent than amid the crisis we are now facing.”
Now, Colenzo and his team are working tirelessly holding the government’s and public bodies’ feet to the fire to ensure NHS workers have the personal protective equipment they so desperately need.
“A major issue for us now on PPE is the confusing guidance that’s out there. I’ve heard from so many members in health who are simply not sure what they should be wearing. Some say that the PPE guidance out there from Public Health England (PHE) and other bodies is being tailored to the amount of PPE that is available now instead of the actual scientific evidence, which may call for higher levels of PPE.”
“I spoke to Public Health England and demanded that they sort this out – it’s a confusing message and we cannot let this continue,” Colenzo explained.
‘Safety is employer’s responsibility’
While Colenzo works behind the scenes to secure clarity from PHE and other bodies, he adds that Unite is supporting its members to collectively push employers to make sure that they have the right protection they need.
“Whatever guidance there is from PHE, it is still the employer’s responsibility to make sure work places are safe,” he noted. “The ultimate duty of care is with the employer. And we are constantly reminding these employers and our members that it is the right of every single worker in this country to not put themselves at risk of injury or hazard in work.
‘Lives on the line’
“Too many NHS workers have lost their lives as a result of this pandemic – it’s time for the government to sort this out and stop putting pressure on NHS workers to put their lives on the line by not having the sufficient PPE they need to look after sick people.”
When asked if he has a message of hope for NHS workers during the crisis, Colenzo said that it is not for him to give such a message.
“We have to pay a huge amount of respect to NHS workers for the work they’re doing at this time,” he said. “Their efforts are a credit to this country and to their profession. You ask me what message I can give to our members to give them hope – well it is their own work that gives us all hope. It is an honour and privilege to be a voice for NHS workers. They’re in there day, in day out, sticking together, being dedicated to their patients, to their communities and to their country.
“They give us all hope that there is a better way and new way forward,” Colenzo continued. “This crisis will end – there is no doubt about it – but we want to make sure when we overcome Covid-19 that we can make our health service one that truly works for the health workers who have given so much of themselves through their love and care. Things cannot go back to business as usual – there must be a radical rethink about the way that we shape our society, and our institutions.”
Don’t forget the minute’s silence tomorrow April 28, at 11 am to remember coronavirus victims who lost their lives serving on the front line. And as trade union members can’t make their usual tribute and remembrances to lost colleagues together in person, why not join in an online collective moment of remembrance and solidarity at 2 pm? Speakers include TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and Unite executive council member and London bus driver, James Mitchell. Register here https://www.crowdcast.io/e/iwmd2020/register