Dispatches from the front - health workers speak out
Cases are rising and we are struggling to cope
A trauma radiographer
Working in A&E a few days ago, every patient I X-rayed had Covid, and we are working on the basis that every patient has the virus. We had 219 Covid inpatients last night, and expect to reach 400 by the end of the week.
We are working on the assumption that cases will continue to rise to a peak at the end of January, but with the figures reported every day steadily increasing, there is the constant worry that the crisis will continue for longer.
It does feel a little bit like a war-zone. Everybody I work with is struggling to cope with the crisis and it is having an effect on their mental health. Everyone is brittle. People regularly break into tears and need to take time out.
The hospital that I work in has been in a constant state of change as we manage the increase in Covid cases. We have had outbreaks in successive departments, and our hospital management is choosing to move patients to other wards rather than redeploying staff within the hospital. This is to ensure that staff can work more effectively, knowing where to access equipment and working in a familiar environment.
Sat here today on my day off I have had three emails asking for shifts to be changed and asking for people to volunteer for night shifts to cover for staff who have tested positive.
Unlike at the start of the pandemic, there is now regular testing available for staff and for patients, including testing onsite. With increasing numbers of staff having already had the virus it is not clear whether it is possible to be infected for a second time and what effects this could have. I have colleagues who, months after having had the virus, have got antibodies, and colleagues who have no antibodies weeks after having recovered.
The vaccine is slowly being rolled out; not as was promised, but it is getting there. By and large the most vulnerable staff are receiving the vaccine first. Staff are identified to receive the vaccine using their NHS staff number. We have been reassured that agency staff working for companies like Serco and Mitie as security and cleaners won't be overlooked. We need to fight to make sure that all of those workers on the front line get the vaccine.
Fighting the virus and the Tories - for a 15% NHS pay rise
Adrian O'Malley, Unison union Mid-Yorkshire health branch (personal capacity)
It feels like the calm before the storm, especially for those working in intensive care. Cases have not risen as much in the North compared to those in the South East, but we are waiting and expecting the new variant to come like a big wave.
The staff who have already been through it in April and November are tired. It's like a war, having gone through a big battle, getting a short rest, only to be faced with "here we go again".
Being at this level of pressure has an effect on staff sickness levels - at one stage we had 10% of staff off with Covid. When the number of cases rises, so do numbers of staff sickness. With a shortage of staff, the whole process with Nightingales in Yorkshire was just a big waste of money.
People are cynical about the whole thing. Clapping for the NHS, squandering billions on the private sector, and not giving health workers a pay rise. Our local Tory MP has replied to a nurse who contacted them saying "you're paid enough already".
As a union rep, I watched what the National Education Union (NEU) did over the issue of school safety, in organising meetings of members online at short notice. This is what the Unison union must be doing in health.
We should be having mass meetings online of NHS workers demanding a decent pay rise and threatening strike action in spring if we don't get one. I think we should be raising that now, and I know for a fact stewards in my branch would all be behind that.
The leadership of the NHS unions, Unison in particular, has been far too quiet. We need to be raising this issue of pay while in lockdown, while our members are on the front line fighting the virus. Socialist Party members are raising this on the Unison service group executive and putting on the pressure.
If we can organise members on the scale that the NEU did, and get 400,000 health workers at a meeting online demanding a pay rise, that will send a big message to the government: that we are fighting the virus now, but come April if we don't get a pay rise then we will be fighting you!
New variant "taking its toll in a way the first and second waves did not"
The new Covid variant is ravaging London and the South East. Its presence is now well-known far further afield and it's beginning to taking its toll on staff in a way the first and second waves did not. Firstly it's far more infectious, resulting in higher levels of staff sickness. In addition to those required to shield again, we're now losing substantially more colleagues to illness with Covid.
Secondly, these higher rates of absence are challenging the limited staff resources in complex ways, agitating the fragile mental health of staff caused by nearly a year of fighting Covid. Thirdly, the vaccination programme is far too slow. News of the Oxford vaccine approval had raised hopes, but colleagues continue asking where it is, and why it's taking so long?
All of these challenges are set against the background of the campaign for NHS pay. News that the clapping ritual was to resume was predictably greeted with derision and even hostility. Colleagues are restless and talk of industrial action is gaining traction in some quarters, including among those lowest paid who are asked to sacrifice more and more as their colleagues fall prey to Covid.
The union leadership in my trust is still largely absent. I would like to believe that that's because of distancing measures, but in reality this has always been the case. Unfortunately, this means that union leaders can be viewed as out of touch, detached and remote. Lay members are now more poised to ask challenging questions and are increasingly extolling the virtues of a fighting campaign to deliver 15%.
In The Socialist 13 January 2021:
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