UNISON must be ‘proactive’ in greening the NHS, delegates agree

Delegates discuss a trio of motions, with a sense of urgency at the scale of the problem facing the planet

Sandra White for the Northern region speaking to conference

The opening afternoon of UNISON’s health conference in Liverpool saw delegates debate a series of motions on the environment and the need for a greener NHS, with a collective sense of urgency and, as Karen Buckley from Greater Manchester mental health branch put it: “An absolute duty to the planet and our children and grandchildren to save the planet and reverse the damage.”

Moving the motion, Tam Hiddleston for the executive said that: “We in UNISON need to be proactive” in facing the crisis.

Acknowledging some suggestions for how to make a difference have been made, he emphasised that it was “imperative that our members and activists are involved in discussions about greener ways of working”.

The issue is vital, but it’s “important that members don’t pay the cost”. Many lives could be saved by greener measures, he said, “but we must be involved” in the difficult but necessary work to ensure a just transition.

And Mr Hiddleston said that working with local green campaign groups can help activists and branches gain knowledge and training to help have a positive impact.

Ms Buckley stressed: “UNISON is a big union – we can make a difference. I think that our whole survival depends on it.”

For the union’s science, therapy and occupational group, Fiona Wilde told delegates: “The climate emergency is going nowhere,” adding that “eight per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions are caused by public services, with 5% caused by the NHS”.

However, there is a £113bn investment gap in terms of what is needed to tackle this.

Anaesthetics are one thing that produces huge amounts of emissions, but Ms Wilde explained that there are greener alternatives available.

“Now it’s time to put the planet first – not above our patients, but with them,” she said.

Sandra White for the Northern region (pictured top) introduced a motion on promoting and supporting NHS green travel plans, but said that the challenge of this is compounded by the fact that the NHS is not a single entity, since it includes hundreds of different trusts, hospitals and GP surgeries.

She says that helping the NHS to understand their options for transport, has “health and environmental benefits”.

For the executive, Tanya Pretswell said: “The time for us to do more is now. The pandemic lockdowns saw massive decreases in greenhouse gasses – mostly down to less travel. Digital consultations and treatments, introduced because of the pandemic, also cut emissions from travel.”

On the benefit to the environment of home and hybrid working, Paul Leek from the regional health commissioning branch cited the “passive aggressive” attempts by the “shade of Jacob Rees-Mogg” to bully civil servants back into offices as an illustration of Tories trying to deflect from what needs to be done on the climate, with reducing commuting being one move that can massively reduce carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Mindy Watts from the disabled members’ committee reminded delegates of how much better the air quality was during lockdowns, because of reduced commuting, but added that disabled workers must not be forgotten in discussions around this subject.

Among the actions that delegates voted for the service group executive to take, were:

  • working with external bodies with relevant expertise to provide branches with practical information, advice, training and negotiating guidance to aid in a just transition;
  • campaign for sustainability to be built into training and education standards for allied health professionals, healthcare scientists and pharmacy technicians, as well as the wider NHS;
  • promote green travel plans through partnership structures in the devolved nations.