By Pat Lawlor
The Tory Government and Assembly Executive have referred to the Covid-19 pandemic as a war. However, across many areas of our health and social care service, the staff who are on the frontline of this war have not been supplied with the protection they need.
The first line of defence in the battle against any viral pandemic is to ensure the protective barrier is maintained. For healthcare staff, this means ensuring we have been supplied with enough of the right type of personal protective equipment (PPE) to do the job. This has been one of the scandals of this pandemic across the world as, in country after country, health workers have been forced to risk their lives because of the criminal failures of their governments to protect them. Hundreds of front-line healthcare workers throughout the world have died so far, with many more likely to die as they continue to care for patients with Covid-19 without adequate protection, committed to traumatic and draining work, putting themselves at risk of infection for their patients.
The tragic events in Italy – where the highest number of doctors, nurses and allied staff have died so far – shows us exactly what happens without proper protection. There have been reports of inadequate and poor supply of PPE from staff in Italy. These reports have been repeated across the world, from those staff who have subsequently died and their colleagues. There is no clearer evidence that, without appropriate PPE, all healthcare workers are at great risk and, most importantly, can spread the virus to colleagues, friends and family.
Staff are frightened about infecting their families, their patients, and their communities due to the shortage of PPE, lack of testing and poor support from their employers. Every minute we wait is a minute too long. All staff, no matter where they work, must feel safe. We need action, we need equipment, we need it now.
The health trade unions have repeatedly raised this issue with Health Minister Robin Swan, demanding reassurances that health workers will receive protection they deserve. He has replied, “I want to make clear that we have sufficient PPE supply for current demand and will continue to actively model projected demand”. (Robin Swann, DOH, 03 April 2020).
However, there is a warning that the supply chain from private manufacturing companies could be threatened, as they seek to capitalise on the profits to be made in this pandemic. “As I have stated, there’s not a country in the world that can definitively say it has enough PPE in stock”. (Robin Swann, DOH, 03 April 2020).
Similarly, Finance Minister Conor Murphy commented in Stormont that, “The truth is we needed to be in the market a couple of weeks earlier.”
However, as health workers, we must make the message clear – we will not accept anything less than sufficient aprons, gowns, gloves, face shields and appropriate masks for all staff, in all settings. Seeking assurances and strongly worded letters are not enough as we put our lives on the line on a daily basis. We need real leadership, with practical action and support from our trade unions to refuse to be put at risk. On 1st April, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) – as part of the tripartite forum of business, government and unions – called for testing and PPE as a priority and for government to “scope the capacity of NI businesses to repurpose and produce essential equipment to address shortages”. This is a positive step forward. However, it is a minimal step and needs to be strengthened with support for action by the union movement and workers.
We know from our recent industrial action that, when we stand together, we can force Stormont’s hand. NIC-ICTU needs to turn these demands on the Assembly Executive into real action. The trade union movement must use its authority and weight in society to pressure the Assembly to begin testing on a mass scale. To ramp up the local production of PPE and essential resources, private manufacturing companies must be taken into public ownership and retooled so they are fit for purpose. This is the only way to ensure our health workers and local communities are not prey to profit-driven big business and the parasitical system of capitalism that intends to exploit all workers during this global human tragedy.
Our union movement must organise full, practical solidarity support across all workplaces, whether in the public or private sector, to safeguard the interests of workers and defend those who refuse to be put at risk. The movement must fight to guarantee workers don’t pay the price for those crisis either, with their jobs or through loss of pay. Full pay should be guaranteed in the case of absence whether due to non-essential status or self-isolation.