‘Exhausted and demoralised staff are walking away from health care’

UNISON’s virtual health conference opens with a campaigning programme that will build on the lessons of the pandemic

UNISON’s virtual health conference opened this morning with a succession of motions aimed at ensuring members’ health and wellbeing as the UK moves forward from the pandemic.

Roz Norman (pictured above), chair of the health service group executive (HSGE) said: “The consequences of the virus for health care staff was devastating. Every one of the health care workers who died have left families bereaved, teams in tears and branches who will never ever forget the toll that this virus has taken.”

UNISON vice president Andrea Egan talked of the “unprecedented challenges” on members’ working lives caused by COVID-19.

“The NHS has been tested to the limits, and so have many of you,” she said, adding that the pandemic had demonstrated the extent to which the country relied on its health workers. “It will be forever in your debt.”

However, the morning’s motions suggested that neither government nor employers seem of a mind to repay that debt.

Introducing a motion Pandemic experiences can not be the ‘new normal’ for health workers Eddie Woolley said that the staff who had delivered during COVID were the same staff now expected to bring down the NHS’s massive service backlog.

Members were constantly on call, he said, unable to recover even on their days off, suffering from bullying and abuse as the pressure builds on everyone around them.

“Exhausted staff were and still are being flogged by a system that is in desperate need of staff and resources,” he said. The result was that “exhausted and demoralised staff are walking away from health care.”

Mr Woolley said that members could not expect protection from the government or NHS employers – it would only come from UNISON. To that end, the union had to build capacity “to make our workers safe.”

The motion calls on the HSGE to deliver the following actions:

  • Support branches to influence the strategic health and wellbeing agenda at employer level, addressing: impact of long hours, overtime, shift patterns and on-call duties; the importance of rest breaks and access to annual leave; tracking of hours worked in addition to contract (including through Bank and agency); and protections for those working at home or remotely;
  • Ensure plans to address treatment backlogs are made in partnership with unions at national, system, and employer level and do not adversely impact staff health and wellbeing;
  • Work with other parts of the union to build health and safety capacity and expertise within branches;
  • Embed campaign to make workplaces more civil, and safe, by tackling violence, aggression and bullying;
  • Ensure branches are equipped to influence ongoing infection prevention.

A composite motion addressed the various controversies involving personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, from the initial shortage caused by the government’s failure to heed warnings of such an emergency, to the lack of proper guidance to workers about the importance and use of PPE, and the award of PPE contracts to friends and allies of government figures.

Delegates heard that their own colleagues paid the price of these failings – between March and December 2020 there were 883 recorded deaths of NHS workers due to COVID, while 122,000 NHS staff are currently living with long COVID.

Rad Kerrigan of Eastern region said: “This government is culpable for every death in service. It must be held to account. We need to ensure that future generations are not left as unprepared as we were.”

Delegates voted in favour of a campaign for a judicial review into the government’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic. They also called on the HSGE to:

  • Campaign to ensure sufficient quality stocks of PPE are held nationally in readiness for any future pandemics;
  • Ensure the NHS has PPE that is fit for purpose of the best quality available and in line with HSE guidelines;
  • Support health branches who raise legitimate issues of poor and inadequate pandemic PPE with their employer and lobby NHS England/Improvement so that staff who are not issued with safe and appropriate PPE are empowered to refuse to give care without fear of reprisal;
  • Liaise with the NEC to create a national campaign that highlights the unnecessary death and illness that befell NHS and care staff;
  • Publicise and support the work of anti-corruption campaigners that expose the money wasted that should have been spent on NHS staff safety and patient care; and
  • Demand a fitting and lasting memorial to every public sector worker that died due to contracting COVID-19 while carrying out their duties.

The morning session also included commitments to support health members suffering with long COVID, to seek to establish home-working as a reasonable adjustment for disabled members in post-COVID workplaces and workforce health and wellbeing as part of the bargaining agenda with all health employers (including a strong equality dimension) and to support and encourage branches to take forward their own health and wellbeing programmes.