Irish government fails to protect healthcare workers

By Valerie O’Leary

The proportion of healthcare workers contracting Covid-19 in Ireland is amongst the highest in the world. 31.8% of total cases of Covid-19 are associated with healthcare workers, while 1 in 10 of cases are directly associated with nurses or midwives. 

In comparison, the prevalence of healthcare workers amongst those who contracted the disease worldwide is between 5% and 10%. In Italy and Spain, two of the worst affected countries in Europe, the percentage of healthcare workers who contracted Covid-19 is 12% and 22% respectively.

These figures are a damning indictment of the Irish government’s failure to protect healthcare workers.

Why is Ireland’s rate so high? 

Ireland has one of the most privatised health systems in the world.

Over 85% of nursing homes are privately owned for instance. In order to make bigger profits, cost-cutting measures are implemented, including not investing in life-saving PPE and necessary testing. 

Private hospitals and nursing homes are run for profit and therefore generally employ workers on lower pay and conditions. The sector is dominated by agency and precarious staff. Staffing ratios are also kept to a minimum. A major issue was the lack of fully paid sick leave in the private sector.

In the context of this crisis it meant a real pressure on staff numbers in the private facilities and increased the pressure for workers to cut short sick leave and quarantine times, putting patients and their colleagues in danger.

Adequate PPE should be provided for all healthcare staff as well as a programme of rapid testing. In addition, we need to demand better working conditions and pay healthcare workers. Paid sick leave and affordable childcare should also be immediately made available.

Put healthcare workers in control 

It is not just in the private sector where this reckless attitude to workers’ and patients’ safety. The INMO has shockingly highlighted that guidance from the HSE on the compulsory use of masks in healthcare was also delayed. The INMO nurses’ union have stated that they had to ‘lobby and cajole’ the HSE to make masks obligatory. They report that infection rates reduced dramatically following the introduction of the HSE’s face mask policy. 

In order to protect the health and safety of health workers it is essential that the profit motive is taken out of healthcare.

We need to put an end to the two-tier health system that exists today and demand that private facilities are brought into democratic public ownership and control. We also need to see workers brought into the heart of the management of the health service and in the management of health and safety in the workplace.