Unsafe and Unsupported – The People’s Covid Inquiry hears testimony from frontline workers

Unsafe and Unsupported – The People’s Covid Inquiry hears testimony from frontline workers, 22 April

At last night’s fifth session of campaigning organisation Keep Our NHS Public’s [1] People’s Covid Inquiry, [2] entitled The Impact on frontline staff and keyworkers [3], staff from the NHS and TfL detailed how a lack of government preparedness, coupled with the longevity of the pandemic, had affected their wellbeing and various aspects of their work. Train driver and ASLEF union rep Unjum Mirza relayed how operational decisions by TfL led to overcrowding and that some transport workers had been disciplined for using their own materials as a means of protection from the virus when their employers failed to provide PPE:

“The initial measures brought in by London underground were completely incoherent and not fit for purpose….[the government] closed 40 stations which encouraged more congestion in fewer places…it was an attempt to show that London Underground were doing something when in fact by doing something they were making the situation worse…so many bus drivers told me they were just totally abandoned…safety protocols and measures on the buses was just non-existent…essentially they [the government] were trying to run this on a wing and a prayer, where we do the praying, and they do the winging.”

He also detailed how workplace risk assessments didn’t come out in document form until June and how he was forced to temporarily strike to ensure a cleaning rota was displayed in tube cabs for the protection of himself and fellow colleagues:.

In terms of the conflicting messages from government, how slow they were to react and the misunderstanding of what the virus was, the first sentence of the [TfL] risk assessment was to follow government advice but there was a huge divorce between conflicting adviceI have no faith in their [TfL] preparedness at all, they are a mess and continue to be a mess.”

Session five also heard testimony from Prof. Raymond Agius, Professor Emeritus of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of Manchester, who expressed his frustration at the way PPE had been sourced and distributed, asserting that in his professional opinion, lives could have been saved had the government acted differently:

“The government was trying to rationalise the rationing [of PPE] what really bugs me is that they invested billions in PPE which was sat in docks at Felixstowe and if the stock had been mobilised more widely then we would not have had the second peak, in my view, that we had.”

Frontline NHS staff spoke about the risks they faced at work and how government actions and decisions had hampered their efforts to control the pandemic, as well as taken their toll on their health and wellbeing. Kirsty Brewerton, NHS Clinical Sister, explained how the sporadic nature of mental health support during and after waves of the pandemic could potentially lead to retention issues within the NHS:

“I’ve seen the gradual decline of services and how the impact of decisions being made has had a real impact. At times I was forced to work in unsafe conditions and I ended up having a mental breakdown and becoming suicidal, its the moral injury of feeling unable to look after people properly…this final wave that we’ve just overcome was really, really, tough. The staffing was the worst I think I’ve ever seen it. The problem was we were also having to provide the vaccination programme…we’ve lost staff throughout the pandemic through illness or staff leaving…we’re not trained to deal with these types of situation, we’re not routinely risk assessed to deal with mental illness or stress…mental health support is sporadic and varies from trust to trust, there’s no minimum amount of support that should be available and there is a duty of care required, its a stressful job which is getting ever more stressful, and addressing it should be a priority…I worry that the moral injury will have a massive impact on retention, and I hope that trusts are really mindful of it and support their staff going forward.” 

Dr Chidi Ejimofo NHS Consultant in Emergency Medicine explained how a lack of official government guidance impacted on the already challenging demands of his role:

“In a lot of ways we were having to create our own guidance looking up papers from china and Italy about what we should do because we weren’t getting any guidance. In the first 3-4 weeks there wasn’t any change in the ways of normal hospital business and this was common for all levels of staff…we were doing Covid testing in the ambulance car park in the middle of February…people had been directed ‘Go to A&E’ so we became a testing centre…we were getting guidance changing pretty much every day…all the interventions we made were coming from us, we weren’t getting any guidance from elsewhere.” 

“In the second wave we were more prepared in terms of what we had to do, the enthusiasm was gone, we had an exhausted workforce. It was depressing because we knew the second wave was coming, [colleagues were] talking about it in October/November and had suspicions when Eat Out to Help Out was put in place, by this time you had a workforce that had been in the trenches for 9 months [already]…the risk assessment was a three part tick box exercise…it felt as if rather than being supported, you were being required to justify yourself…by doing this you may actually be encouraging people to take risks you shouldn’t be doing…locum staff took one look at the inadequate PPE, and walked off the job…this may have led to vaccine hesitancy [amongst BAME staff] once you’ve lost trust in a system, it persists…”

“Creating the Nightingale hospitals in the way they were put together was a waste of time, you should not have been taking away staff from areas in which they were required…you had patients that rather than going to ITU, were going to HDU…staff were suddenly having to spread themselves over a greater number of patients…”

“Employers and regulatory bodies have a duty of care to frontline staff, if you are prepared to rule on our professional behaviour, you should also be there when our professional behaviour is constrained due to factors beyond our control…I think there needs to be a robust way of feeding back and reporting…I think this was lacking during this pandemic so that people had to turn to the press to highlight what was happening…a duty of candour in regards to our working conditions would at least be a useful step…”

Spokespeople are available for interview (subject to availability) and more information is available upon request. Contact Samantha Wathen, Press Officer for Keep Our NHS Public [email protected]  or Call/WhatsApp: 0777 6047472

Notes to editors

  1. Keep Our NHS Public is a national independent organisation campaigning for a well-funded, publicly owned and provided NHS https://www.keepournhspublic.com
  2.  https://www.peoplescovidinquiry.com/ A host of leading academics, celebrities, campaigning groups and unions together with frontline workers and members of the public, will give evidence in an attempt to learn lessons from the events surrounding this pandemic. In the absence of an arranged formal public investigation, campaigners believe that the time for a Covid Inquiry is now, in order to analyse why this country has suffered over 100,000 deaths, and what lessons should be learned to inform future decision and policy making. The 4 remaining sessions will take place fortnightly until June and focus on different topics relevant to the pandemic. The People’s Covid Inquiry will culminate in a report with conclusions and a set of recommendations which will be presented to the government. Testimony gathered will provide the basis for evidence-based recommendations on the provision of health and social care in the UK, including the future funding and organisation of the NHS. Sessions are free to access and open to all.
  3. Watch the session here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRtKxm_5lno