Jonathan Ashworth has urged the government to work closely with trade unions to make sure that frontline NHS and care workers get the personal protective equipment that they need during the coronavirus crisis.
The intervention from Labour’s health spokesperson comes after the heads of the UK’s health and social care unions submitted a joint statement to the government today, warning that the lack of PPE is a “crisis within a crisis”.
Ashworth declared that the joint call from seven organisations – including UNISON, the Royal College of Midwives, GMB, Unite, and the TUC – “exposes the level of concern from healthcare workers about adequacy and supply of PPE”.
The statement calls on the government to work with unions and employers to identify shortfalls and to “guarantee that no member of staff will be put under pressure to perform tasks without adequate protective equipment”.
The heads of the organisations also explain that staff are being threatened with disciplinary action if they speak out about shortages, and say that they are “effectively gagged to stop them raising their concerns”.
Ashworth said: “Our NHS and social care staff deserve the very best protective clothing and equipment and they urgently need continued access to it.
“Labour calls on ministers to abandon attempts to gag staff and instead work closely with trade unions to ensure staff get the PPE that is so crucial to keeping them and patients safe.”
The lack of PPE for frontline health workers was branded a “national scandal” by trade union GMB, as the number of ambulance staff self-isolating after displaying Covid-19 symptoms across NHS Trusts exceeded 4,100.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Physicians revealed on March 31st that one in four NHS doctors has been signed off from work due to illness or because they are self-isolating.
There are now a total of 29,474 recorded cases of coronavirus in the UK, although the true figure is thought to be higher. 2,352 people have died from the disease with 563 new deaths in the past 24 hours.
Below is the full text of the statement submitted to the government.
We jointly represent many workers who are on the frontline of tackling Covid-19.
Our members care for the sick and the elderly, they look after our children and keep them safe, they make sure there is food on the supermarket shelves, they keep the lights on and the water running.
We are weeks into fighting Covid-19. It is now clear that the lack of personal protective equipment for frontline workers has become a crisis within a crisis.
Workers are being exposed to unreasonable and unnecessary risk by the ongoing failure to provide key workers with adequate PPE.
Every day we hear from our members that despite repeated assurances from government, people are being asked to work with inadequate or out of date protective equipment – and that is where PPE is being provided at all.
Many groups of healthcare workers are at greater risk than others due to their prolonged exposure along with the nature of their contact with patients. Sufficient supplies of the required higher level of PPE are critical for them to be able to care for patients while not putting themselves at risk.
Too often, we are hearing of inappropriate ‘tiering’ of PPE where the health of one group of workers is prioritised over another, especially when it comes to outsourced workers.
Where workers refuse to undertake activities because they do not have the appropriate PPE, they run the risk of disciplinary action, or even worse, letting down people who rely on them going to work.
Workers are told not to speak out. They are effectively gagged to stop them raising their concerns. Key workers deserve better.
They are risking their own health and safety for us. We must be clear what that means, those who are subject to prolonged and direct exposure to the virus – such as health and social care professionals – are risking their lives.
We need urgent action now, and transparency on procurement, distribution, timescales and exactly how and when workers can expect to get the protection they need and deserve.
Government must utilise the skills of the UK manufacturers to urgently increase supply, and put in place clear systems for employers to report shortages and shortfalls.
Finally, we call on the government and employers to guarantee that no member of staff will be put under pressure to perform tasks without adequate protective equipment.
As a trade union movement, we are willing and able to work with government to get through this crisis, but we cannot allow our members to be put at risk. We seek an urgent meeting and urgent action to make sure that PPE is making it to our front line.
It is the very least workers deserve.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary, TUC
Dave Prentis, general secretary, UNISON
Gill Walton, chief executive officer and general secretary, Royal College of Midwives
Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary, Unite
Tim Roache, general secretary, GMB
Professor Karen Middleton, chief executive, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
Annette Mansell-Green, director of trade union and public affairs, British Dietetic Association