Due to Tory cuts, privatisation, and recklessness, the NHS is now completely overwhelmed by COVID. Only the sacrifices of health workers are keeping it afloat. The labour movement must support their fight for decent pay and conditions.
Those of us working in the NHS have long been our own worst enemies. Many nurses and other healthcare professionals see their work as a vocation, rather than a paid job. This has hindered the struggle for fair pay, terms, and conditions.
Health workers are now facing the dire consequences of years of relinquishing their basic rights – including the right to rest breaks, decent overtime pay, and adequate staffing levels on every shift. Restructure after restructure has driven down staffing levels and made workloads unbearable. Much of this has gone through largely unchallenged.
Privatisation has taken hold of all non-core NHS services. Too many have swallowed the line that private businesses improve conditions and are more efficient, when the reverse is true.
Cut to the bone
Trade union officers and shop stewards have been pulled into officiating on NHS committees and representing individual members. These responsibilities are important, but organising any collective trade union disputes has suffered as a result.
Hospital cleaning has been cut to the bone over the last decade by the facilities management companies that are invading the NHS. Domestic services staff are now actively encouraged to do spot cleaning to get through impossible workloads.
The fact that private profit is more important than thorough hospital cleaning during a pandemic is an absolute scandal – but one that is hidden from the public. This is putting staff and patients at even higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Due to a failure of leadership at every level, health workers have gone from having no PPE, to enduring hospital infection control teams instructing them to remove PPE in hospital corridors.
Many now have the minimum PPE required. But even larger numbers of health workers are getting sick due to inadequate infection control measures. This is what has prompted my union – GMB – to call for an urgent improvement in PPE provision.
Non-emergency ambulance transport staff are complaining about the lack of social distancing on ambulances; the lack of facilities for food and rest breaks; and the crossover of COVID and non-COVID crews and vehicles, which puts everyone at risk.
Patients and workers suffer
Health workers have tried to speak out about their dangerous working conditions. But they have been threatened by hospital managers, who don’t want the world to see how – after years of cuts – the chickens are now coming home to roost during this pandemic.
Many back office staff in the NHS have been put under enormous pressure to come into work, in breach of the latest national lockdown rules. The risks of virus transmission continue to be downplayed by those who hold power and control.
Patients are suffering too, with the lack of staffing and capacity leading to reduced access to the NHS. Unable to access hospital care, many will acquire disabilities or die at home.
Due to decades of austerity and real-term funding cuts, the capacity in terms of beds and staffing simply isn’t there to support the numbers falling ill. To add insult to injury, plans to further cut NHS capacity are still rolling on, with the ICS [integrated care systems] model continuing to be rolled out across the country, even during this pandemic.
Clapping doesn’t cut it
Things are now changing fast in the NHS. Exhausted and demoralised staff who have saved many lives during this pandemic are finally starting to realise that the Tory government and NHS employers don’t have their best interests at heart. This was starkly illustrated when nurses and other health workers were overlooked in the last public sector pay announcement.
Health workers can no longer ignore the fact that they are being left undervalued, unprotected, exposed to unnecessary hazards by those at the top.
Clapping just doesn’t cut it anymore. The attempts to resurrect ‘clap for heroes’ tributes came from a tone deaf layer of people, who cannot really comprehend the sheer horror of the conditions now being endured by so many health workers.
Anger is building. For the first time, many health workers – including nurses – are engaging with trade unions and are beginning to challenge the status quo. The marches and demonstrations that occurred last summer, demanding a 15% pay rise, are just the first signs of the change in consciousness that is taking root across the NHS.
The task of unions like my own is to develop and support the new generation of NHS reps coming through. These are the people who will fight for their own rights, with full knowledge that the entire future of the NHS itself depends on their willingness to struggle.
The NHS is nothing without the frontline staff who deliver services. The entire country is dependent on them. So now is the time for the labour movement to unite and build the struggle for genuine improvements in the pay, terms, and conditions of all NHS workers.