Unite, which represents over 100,000 health workers, has backed a call by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) that the government’s plans to relax social distancing rules over Christmas (from December 23-27) should be dropped, to help ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed in the new year by a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Unite is highly concerned that hospitals are already running close to capacity and that they threaten to be overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-19 cases. Problems of demand could be made even worse if there is a sustained period of bad weather.
Unite members are already reporting long waits occurring at A&E departments.
The Christmas relaxation could result in far more NHS workers being exposed to the virus or being required to self-isolate placing further pressure on hospitals.
The problem is being made worse as bank health staff – NHS workers undertaking additional shifts – are being moved from covering hospital shifts into vaccination programmes.
Unite believes that the increase in Covid-19 cases is being fuelled by workers being unable to afford to self-isolate. Unite has consistently called for an increase in statutory sick pay (SSP) which is just £95.85 a week.
The situation is even worse for the 4.5 million plus self-employed workers in the UK who do not qualify for SSP and would have to seek means related Universal Credit benefits, which are not paid for five weeks, if forced to self-isolate.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said, “No one wants to be a Grinch at Christmas but relaxing the rules for five days is a dangerous folly.
“If the government goes ahead with its plans all the hard work will be thrown out of the window and a surge in Covid cases could result in the NHS being overwhelmed,” he added.
“January is always the busiest time of year for the NHS and if action is not taken now, Unite members working in the NHS do not believe it will be able to cope.
“The blame for this looming fiasco must fall at the door of the government,” Jarrett-Thorpe went on to say.
“The pandemic has already stretched the capacity of the NHS. The BMJ/HSJ report says the number of patients waiting over a year for non-urgent treatment has risen from a few hundred to 160,000. It will take years to reduce waiting times and the cost could be further suffering, physical and psychological anguish and loss of life.
“The government is guilty of once again providing mixed messages, telling people to abide by the tier system but that there is no need to follow it at Christmas.
“For once the government must put the NHS first and follow the science and accept it made the wrong initial call about Christmas meetings.
“A failure to do so will result in a surge of Covid cases, unnecessary suffering and needless loss of life.”
By Barckley Sumner