In a recent survey by the British Medical Association, nearly half of doctors say that they have had to source their own Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In some cases, healthcare professionals have relied upon donations. Only 1-in-3 doctors feel fully protected from coronavirus in the workplace.
In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, British frontline staff are risking their lives due to equipment shortages in their fight against COVID-19. With over 100 NHS workers dead, it is clear that the government is failing the needs of healthcare workers, and thus also the needs of patients.
Of the PPE that was provided by the government, a recent BBC Panorama investigation exposed how dwindling stockpiles contained countless expired masks, respirators, needles and syringes. Hospital staff found use-by labels peeled off, revealing layers of expiry dates going as far back as 2012.
Despite Boris’ Blitz-spirit bluff, the NHS didn’t march confidently into this pandemic; we staggered into a deeper crisis.
Beyond faulty or absent equipment, the safety of workers on the frontline is threatened by confusing and ever-changing policy.
As a newly qualified junior doctor, I have seen first-hand how staff in my hospital were made to follow resuscitation guidelines that exposed them unnecessarily to the virus. It was only after an uproar from workers that the guidelines were amended to make them safe. We may never know how many doctors were unnecessarily exposed to risk before this correction.
If we dare speak out about these risks, our voices are suppressed. As Unite the Union reported last month: “there have been anecdotal stories on social media that some NHS bosses may have been clamping down on those wishing to expose failings in the system and improve the well-being of patients.”
DOCTORS GAGGED: Doctors 'told not to discuss #PPE shortages' by some #NHS managers. WhistleblowersUK said more than 100 healthcare workers had contacted them since the beginning of March, raising concerns about #Covid19 and PPE. #coronavirusuk https://t.co/kkARBUJTkf— Paul Ashworth #StaySafe (@pauldashworth) May 15, 2020
It is no surprise that 28% of respondents to the BMA survey said that they are currently suffering from mental distress worsened by COVID-19. There’s little safety and no justice on the wards.
What’s more, the NHS has been running on a skeleton crew of staff for a while. The newly-built NHS Nightingale Hospitals - a preparatory measure as UK health ministers feared an Italy-like surge in cases - ended up being underutilised.
Of the 4,000-bed capacity at the London ExCel centre, only 54 patients were treated. A reason for this is under-staffing. With the lowest doctor-to-population ratio of almost any European nation, and 1-in-4 doctors self-isolating with suspected COVID-19, the ranks of the medical workforce look painfully empty.
The scandal of London's Nightingale Hospital . Patients are routinely turned away because there is no staff to treat them. The 4,000 bed facility was hailed as a miracle, but it was a SCAM. There was NEVER the personel to staff it.— neil flek waugh .#Palestine.#exlabourparty (@sammythedog1989) April 22, 2020
Yet it was only after two weeks of rigorous campaigning by the BMA (the trade union for doctors) that the government finally agreed to send out COVID-19 tests to self-isolating doctors, to speed up their return to the wards.
The NHS cannot go on like this, even after the outbreak ends.
We need accountability and transparency about the figures of those infected and those tested, not incompetent ministers and hearsay. We need workers to be in control of national guidelines: not management bureaucrats deciding who lives and dies. And we need more trained doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff, paid fairly for their work – no one should ever need to resort to a foodbank for lack of decent pay.
Ultimately, none of these demands can be achieved without challenging the capitalist system. A democratically planned economy, sensitive to the material needs of the working class, is a necessity.
We have the materials and productive capacity to combat the crisis. But capitalism’s anarchic nature cannot effectively handle the demands of the outbreak if profits are the priority.
Only with workers in control of their own workplaces, as well as the wider economy, will their safety be prioritised.
To truly support healthcare workers during these trying times, we need to use the nation’s industrial resources to produce more PPE. Appropriate factories should be nationalised, without compensation, for a collective effort to protect frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19.
Non-essential production that does not meet the needs of society should be shut down. We need to streamline and co-ordinate our effort to efficiently tackle this crisis.
Frontline workers need the right equipment, the right guidelines, and the right pay. This needs to be a permanent demand, and not conditional on COVID-19.
This cannot be achieved under capitalism, even with piecemeal reforms. We need to put the needs and demands of workers first. No to unnecessary risk and death. Yes to a socialist society!
NHS left vulnerable due to privatisation, austerity, and Tory incompetence
By Nabiha Ahmed, NHS volunteer
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the NHS has been put under unprecedented pressures, dealing a blow to a health service that was already in the process of being systematically dismantled by successive governments.
This is no more apparent than being on the wards, where you can witness first-hand how the grave effects of austerity and underfunding have manifested themselves during a pandemic.
There’s been an undeniable feeling of fear and uncertainty around the supply of resources for both patients and workers, particularly with regards to PPE and ventilators.
Guidelines about protective gear have been confused and poorly communicated. The most pressing issue, meanwhile, has been trying to salvage together enough of it to distribute to all staff members – an issue which has seen a steady increase in reliance on donations and supplies from private organisations. The NHS, however, is not a charity and should not be treated as one.
Austerity and incompetence
Hospitals and GP surgeries are being sent stocks of discreetly re-labelled PPE to hide the fact they are years out of date. This is only a glimpse into the true ineptitude of government policy.
NEW: Today I spent the afternoon with two frontline NHS staff at a large NHS trust.— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) April 28, 2020
They said they felt compelled to speak out about the PPE situation they're facing.
This is what they told me- it didn't make for easy listening.
It included stories of using out of date PPE.
As a short-term resolution, local communities have been forced to pull together and organise themselves into food and relief networks for workers, who have been thrust into appalling working conditions of torturous hours and unsafe environments. In return, NHS staff receive scant wages, thanks to the Tories voting against an NHS pay rise in 2017.
To distract the public from this fact, Boris Johnson and his ministers have resorted to feigning empathy through performative gestures and empty platitudes.
The seeds for the present situation were planted during years of cuts and deprivation. This period saw a dangerous depletion of the workforce.
Now the chickens have come home to roost, with staff shortages meaning that remaining workers are being fast-tracked into makeshift training programmes as a woeful attempt at compensation. Meanwhile, a glaring lack of comprehensive testing arrangements for frontline staff still exist.
This level of oversight and incompetence has of course had fatal consequences, and not just for the general public. Healthcare workers have died as a direct result, and will unfortunately continue to do so.
At the time of writing, the last to succumb to the virus was a doctor who had raised alarms to the government about inadequate PPE shortly before he fell ill. This begs the question of why there has been such an absence of preparation and response, despite explicit warnings in the preceding months.
A crisis of capitalism
It is important to remember that in the midst of everything, that we have the means to fight the pandemic. The material, financial, and human resources to address this crisis exist. The problem is our economic system, which puts profits before all else.
The government rhetoric has been bleak but predictable: the economy is always the priority; and protecting profits over lives is essential.
This is captured perfectly by the Tories’ desperate attempts to keep the capitalist economy running, despite staring down the barrel of an economic depression. Production has outpaced consumption, while workers in all sectors face pay cuts and lay-offs. Once again, the contradictions of capitalism become more visible.
When this logic is applied to the health service during a pandemic, it unsurprisingly leads to a scarcity of crucial resources and an overwhelming loss of life.
On top of this, healthcare professionals have been held hostage to the poor working conditions that precipitate as a result, since any kind of industrial action does not seem immediately possible.
Because of this, unions like the BMA are left with very few alternative means of pressuring the government into prioritising worker safety. This, in turn, gives room for those in power to inflict damage that some fear could be irreparable, if allowed to continue.
NHS workers who have attempted to speak out, meanwhile, are being gagged and threatened with disciplinary action.
This is all while lucrative contracts for manufacturing critically-needed ventilators and protective equipment are being handed to companies such as Dyson and JCB, who have yet to deliver anywhere close to the numbers required on the frontline. Indeed, these big businesses have no experience in building this type of equipment. But, conveniently, they just happen to be major Tory party donors.
The current state of the NHS and its capacity to deal with this pandemic can only be explained by the years of austerity and plunder that it has been subject to.
This has been orchestrated by previous Tory and New Labour governments, who have acted as agents of the capitalists class, unleashing the claws of private interest to slowly destroy a socialised health system, established on principles that the market now seeks to subvert.
As ever, capitalism will only fulfil the bosses’ insatiable appetite for profits, and never the needs of society.
Things must change. Now more than ever, the demands are clear:
- Plan production in order to guarantee proper PPE for all staff!
- End privatisation and outsourcing: Abolish all PFIs and private interests from healthcare!
- Fully fund the NHS to provide the necessary resources and to increase workers’ wages! Make the bosses pay!