Stormont has failed – Workers and trade unions must take the lead

By Pat Lawlor, health worker

We are seeing the highest levels of Covid-related deaths since May. Intensive care units across Northern Ireland are stretched to capacity. A&Es are overwhelmed, with some departments declaring they may have to turn people away due to over-capacity on wards. There have even been warnings of potential shortages of oxygen.

The second wave is far worse than what was seen from March to May. New admissions have exceeded the first wave, putting severe pressure on all critical services. A limited number of serious, time-critical elective surgeries are being carried out, but many procedures for chronic conditions are being cancelled, adding to already extensive waiting lists.

Staffing crisis bites

Across our health service, staffing levels are depleted to the point of collapse, putting workers and patients at risk. However, Covid has only exacerbated a staffing crisis that already existed due to years of underfunding. Prior to this pandemic, Health Trusts already had up to 20% of posts vacant, with sickness levels of up to 15% due to work-related stress and other issues.   This meant most Trusts were trying to provide a health service with staffing up to 35% below what was required! 

Now, we have thousands of health staff forced to self-isolate, meaning those still at work are under greater strain than ever. Staff are exhausted and undervalued, with many who had initially volunteered to help in the first wave now overwhelmed. Some staff were redeployed up to 10 times during the first wave. Many are reluctant to volunteer now, as they didn’t get the support they needed. Trade unions in health must resist any move by management to implement forced redeployment of staff without adequate training, support and resources.

Only workers can defend public health

This crisis was not inevitable. Stormont has had months to strengthen our health service in preparation for a resurgence of Covid. Instead, they were focused on reopening the economy as fast as possible in the interests of big business, which is a key reason for the current spike. But the problem is not just what they’ve done in recent months. For years, underfunding of our NHS, including attacks on the pay and pensions of workers, has seen an exodus of staff out of our health service, while recruitment of new staff has dwindled to a trickle. 

The Stormont politicians have failed again. But workers and young people can find solutions to this crisis by organising collectively and fighting back – standing up for health and safety in our workplaces and schools; demanding emergency funding into our health service; demanding that public health is put before private profit. 

The strike action taken by health workers at the end of last year to win pay parity with their colleagues in Britain, as well as the recent walkout of Royal Mail workers in Derry over health and safety, shows that when workers stand up, we can win victories. The time for the trade union movement to act is now. The situation is urgent.