BBC News has just run a week-long series about the crisis in the hospitals. Not by an inch did it deviate from the UK government line ‘we are all in it together’. Not once did we hear an authentic voice from an ordinary health worker. Never a whisper about the bullying, the censorship, and the lethal irresponsibility of hospital bosses. Never a word about the dictatorship that reigns in the workplace where health workers are fighting the pandemic.
When we spoke to Bridget Keegan, a frontline health worker in England, about what is really going on, we were shocked. No ordinary health worker can talk openly to the press about what is happening. So Bridget Keegan is, necessarily, a false name. Nor can we identify her job and place of work. It’s that bad. There is collusion between Tory ministers and hospital bosses to prevent health professionals telling the public they serve what is really happening in the hospitals.
Bridget was reduced to tears this week. She runs a team and had tried to protect an at-risk member of her staff suffering from anxiety from being redeployed. Bridget proposed an alternative. She was ordered by an angry senior manager to do as she was told.
There was no discussion. No consideration for the mental health of highly stressed staff. No sense that the team leader had a duty of care, that she knew the people, that she was best qualified to make the call. None of that: just a bully shouting down the phone.
This is routine. This is how so many hospital executives behave. This is happening because the workers’ unions have been beaten down over the last decades and the workers are cowed and under pressure and under the cosh.
‘There is nowhere else to go,’ Bridget told us, ‘no-one else one can talk to. So you either do what you’re told or you face a disciplinary. I thought about resigning this week, because if I can’t do my job of keeping people safe..’
She is not the only one in danger of buckling. Of course, it is partly the pandemic itself. People may not be leaving now – they are too committed to the patients, their colleagues, the essential role they play against the pandemic. But Bridget thinks many will go afterwards. ‘They need to support each other and keep going at the moment. But the catastrophic consequences of this relentless fight will be that many will leave. They are becoming ill with stress, anxiety, PTSD.’
But it is not just the pandemic: it is the lack of consultation, of bottom-up teamwork, of empowering the people who actually do the job. Instead there is management diktat wrapped in corporate-speak. So every team in Bridget’s hospital has its ‘business continuity plan’ for dealing with Covid emergencies. This has nothing to do with teams of health professionals – the people who know – taking control. The opposite.
Take the matter of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We are a year into the pandemic. And still, even now, the UK Government and senior NHS managers who do their bidding have not provided anything like enough equipment. Bridget’s team, redeployed to wards with Covid-positive patients, have no FFP3 masks. She has asked senior management to supply them and been told, no, ‘the guidance’ is that FFP3s are available only to staff involved in AGPs (Aerosol-Generated Procedures) and ICUs (Intensive Care Units).
Let us explain. Bridget’s staff are wearing ordinary surgical masks – the blue ones people wear to do their shopping – when helping Covid-positive patients to get out of bed and move around. ‘Sometimes they have to be very close and personal, and when you move them, they are liable to cough,’ she explains.
FFP3 masks are thick, have a tight seal, and are provided with a breathing filter. This level of protection is vital for staff in close contact with Covid patients. In fact, every hospital worker should have access to them. ‘This virus is 70% more transmissible, and it now looks as if it’s also 30% more deadly. Our hospital is now full of Covid-positive patients. We all need these masks.’
We asked the obvious question: if management are ordering staff to work with Covid-positive patients without FFP3, might they not, in effect, be culpable for staff deaths?
‘Oh, absolutely. This has happened all across the country. But this is how the UK government deals with shortages. It issues ‘guidance’ which corresponds to availability, not need. As far as I’m concerned, they’re putting lives at risk. My staff have said to me they don’t feel safe. Many have acute anxiety. But there isn’t any discussion. If I complain, I’ll face a disciplinary.’
And senior management turns the knife. In Bridget’s NHS Trust, they chose the occasion of the Covid pandemic to impose another ‘reorganisation’. All NHS ‘reorganisations’ of the past 30 or so years have been attacks on the service and the workforce. This one was no exception. Its purpose was to demote and cut the pay of health workers so as to create funding for new senior management posts. ‘Many staff feel they decided to push it through during the pandemic, when we down,’ says Bridget.
It is worth spelling it out. Tory government ministers and hospital bosses are colluding to silence health workers and put their lives in danger because they are responsible for serial failure to manage the pandemic.
We are not all in it together. We are in the clutches of a pandemic created by a system designed to enrich a tiny group at the top of society at the expense of everyone else. We are in the clutches of pro-corporate administrations that cut and privatise public services, that are guilty of cronyism, that cover up failure with censorship and endless lying. We are in the clutches of a ‘class war’ in which our people are overworked, stressed-out, and looked down on by bullying executives as they struggle to save lives.
When this is over, there should be no return to the so-called normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep lines of division running across our society as never before; and nowhere are those lines clearer right now than in the hospitals, where NHS workers are risking their lives and their mental health to keep as many of us alive as they can. No thanks to the Tories. No thanks to NHS senior management. Let us hope a day of reckoning is coming.
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