Health unions publish blueprint for safe opening up of NHS as lockdown eases

16 health unions have published a blueprint for the safe opening up of the NHS as lockdown measures ease, calling for full access to testing, “plentiful” protective equipment supplies and proper staff pay.

The organisations – including UNISON, Unite, GMB, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Royal College of Midwives – have set out a nine-point plan ahead of an expected uptake in service use.

The group of trade unions have argued that after clapping for NHS workers every Thursday evening, the public will “expect the government to reflect this when pay talks open later in the year”.

The blueprint focuses on restarting services that have been “stepped down” during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, while keeping patients and staff safe. It says that the government must:

    1. “Guarantee that there is enough suitable PPE to give staff the equipment they need to protect them when being in contact with the coronavirus is unavoidable – and that all communal staff areas are safe to use;
    2. “Ensure that proper risk assessments are carried out for all staff – to apply social distancing, to help avoid contact with Covid-19 wherever possible and to manage that contact safely when there is no alternative. This must include access to all information on every risk factor, including on ethnicity, and proper training for the managers who will conduct them;
    3. “Give staff and patients/clients unlimited access to testing and rapid results, so that resumed services can stay virus free for staff and patients;
    4. “Extend the current Covid-19 pay arrangements so that staff get paid properly for all the hours they work – including applying overtime rates to hours over 37.5 a week;
    5. “Make sure that staff get a proper work/ life balance by recording and controlling excess hours, reviewing long and rotating shifts, enforcing working time regulations and encouraging staff to take rest breaks and annual leave;
    6. “Use additional capacity from the Bring Back Staff initiative to support rapid establishment of safe staffing levels;
    7. “Make sure that staff know about the support that is available to those most affected by the impact of the virus and encourage them to ask for help if they need it;
    8. “Facilitate and support access to childcare, particularly for staff with pre-school children; and
    9. “Make a clear statement of intent that the contribution of all NHS staff, whatever their jobs, in dealing with this pandemic will be reflected in future conversations about pay.”

Commenting on the proposed plan, UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Health employees across the NHS have continued to work while most of us have been safe at home.

“As hospitals get busier, and clinics and other services begin to reopen, the safety of staff and patients is paramount. But this can’t happen without plentiful and constant PPE supplies.

“Tackling Covid has been a huge challenge, but this next phase will be a crucial test too. This nine-point plan will enable senior NHS managers to work with staff and unions to restart safely many of the services that had to shut up shop when the pandemic hit. Acting on the plan could prevent a second wave of infection.

“The priority for the NHS remains beating the virus, saving lives and keeping everyone safe. The government can show its appreciation for all NHS employees now by approving moves that guarantee staff are paid properly for every hour they’re at work.

“Every Thursday we applaud NHS staff from our doorsteps and show how much we value them. The public will expect the government to reflect this when pay talks open later in the year. People will understandably be horrified at talk of pay freezes for those at the forefront of the fight against the virus.”

The organisations putting forward the plan represent more than a million NHS workers, including porters, nurses, radiographers, physiotherapists, midwives, 999-call handlers, cleaners, healthcare assistants, dieticians and paramedics.

They have called for a “safety-first” approach – meaning sticking to the two-metre rule, allowing certain staff to continue working from home and regularly redeploying those in high-risk areas to ones under less pressure.

The RCN’s Hannah Reed added: “Any discussions about a return to business as usual need to take account of the need for more capacity and tools to restart services like outpatient clinics safely again. All staff need adequate supplies of PPE that is fit for purpose.

“Staff must be paid in full for the extra hours worked during the crisis. Any talk of future pay freezes to pay the bill for the pandemic will outrage nursing, health care staff and the public alike.”

Also involved in drawing up the plans were the British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dental Association, British Dietetic Association, British Orthoptists Society, College of Podiatry, Federation of Clinical Scientists, Managers in Partnership, Prison Officers Association, Society of Radiographers and HCSA.

The release of the proposals come amid concerns about a backlog of non-coronavirus clinical need, with record-low levels of health service use. Labour has called for the government to publish its own plan to manage this need.

The number of coronavirus-associated deaths in the UK currently stands at 33,614 according to Public Health England. There are 233,151 confirmed cases – but with low levels of testing the figure is thought to be much higher.

The full text of the blueprint can be found here.

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