By Pat Lawlor
Across Britian and Northern Ireland to date, over 200 health workers’ lives have been lost to Covid-19. However, Westminster and the Stormont Executive have manipulated the figures, so this will be grossly under-estimated. Grotesquely, the overwhelming majority of these deaths were preventable. The Assembly followed the Tory plan, prioritising profit before people to protect the interests of big business and capitalism. Sinn Féin and the DUP disgracefully used the pandemic as an opportunity to pursue their own sectarian agendas, throwing the Executive into paralysis. This can only be described as criminally negligent in the extreme.
The incoherent Assembly response was evident from the beginning, throwing health workers into a life and death pandemic without preparation and essential resources. The level of preparation needed to be extensive, as our health service was already on the verge of collapse after a decade of Assembly austerity. Ten years of missed targets in emergency, cancer and cardiac services, with astronomical waiting lists increasing annually. A chronic staffing crisis due to savage pay cuts and services slashed saw thousands of health workers take industrial action late last year. As the pandemic took hold and our hospitals began to fill up with Covid positive patients, our health and social care service would have disintegrated. Effectively, all services except emergency and urgent cases and services dedicated to Covid-19 were stood down. All health workers were declared essential, irrespective of employment, age and health status; this was partially reversed for vulnerable staff who refused to comply, supported by their union branches. While services were restructured, management communication was incoherent or non-existent.
No proper protections
Mass redeployment of staff occurred without training, with workers simply expected to manage. Ever-changing national guidelines were loosely interpreted, putting staff in harm’s way, as the Assembly failed to supply enough personal protective equipment (PPE) or implement systematic mass testing. Instead of acting in the interests of public health and taking non-essential companies into public ownership to produce much-needed equipment, the Assembly Executive – like the Tories – pandered to private sector parasites such as Randox Medical and Deloitte, who have profited handsomely.
The Assembly’s failure to protect workers from physical risks was compounded by little support for increasing mental health problems due to stress. Workers feared catching and bringing the virus home to their families, while those working in ICU and Covid centres, working 12-hour shifts for months in the most hostile of environments, faced infection on a daily basis. These staff are highly trained and experienced, but no amount of training can prepare you for this level of trauma and heartbreak.
Workers must not pay
Now we face the prospect of a second wave due to the irresponsible drive by the Assembly to open up the economy to safeguard big business. The weeks of support for ‘NHS heroes’ by politicians only appears crass and cynical to health workers now. Assembly cuts to unsocial hours payments for working 12-hour shifts, night duty and weekends, and a further threat of a two-year pay freeze and pension cuts, shows health workers that nothing has changed. As in the financial crisis of 2008, the Assembly Executive will expect workers to take the hit, while the rich are to be protected. However, this pandemic shows us everything has changed; workers can resist paying the price this time. There is overwhelming support for our NHS and growing confidence amongst health workers to rebuild a fightback through our unions for a real pay-rise, safe staffing and better services. We must ensure our union movement acts decisively now and in the wake of this crisis, including through determined and coordinated industrial action if necessary. This way, we can win for all.