Not just for NHS: Transport and frontline workers need PPE and Testing

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This article was produced by Keep Our NHS Public Co-Chair Tony O'Sullivan, for the transport worker trade union ASLEF's Victoria Line branch newsletter, explaining our position on the dangers facing frontline workers across sectors during the current coronavirus crisis. 


It is unbearably sad to witness the mounting tragedy that this pandemic has brought to the UK and impossible not to be angry at the deaths of key workers. Over 40 NHS staff, at least 14 transport workers in London – more in Birmingham and Bristol – care workers, teachers, emergency service workers – the toll is horrifying. After weeks of government promises to ‘ramp up’ testing and personal protective equipment essential for the safety of staff, Matt Hancock and the Government continue to fail the very workers they are clapping weekly.

What a terrible combination – arrogance and ignorance. The arrogance of leaders who thought they knew better than the World Health Organisation and rejected the tried and tested public health measures that controlled contagion and reduced deaths in China, South Korea and Germany. This arrogance denied staff safe PPE and prompt testing. Their ignorance worsened the risks that frontline staff face when serving the public.

And those early fatal mistakes – we may never know how many avoidable extra deaths – were compounded in the context of an NHS damaged by the impact of failed policies for the last ten years.

As coronavirus deaths approach 20,000 (including community), the weakest links in the NHS and other services exactly mirror the most ignorant, vindictive and ideological of the policies of our political leaders. 17,000 beds cut since 2010. 100,000 NHS staff and 122,000 care staff vacancies. Private competition undermining the strength and morale of the NHS as a public service. Recommendations of the 2016 Exercise Cygnus pandemic modelling were ignored – the dwindling stocks of PPE, the lack of hospital beds and ventilators. Austerity dealt severe cuts to the very public health services the country is now relying on – how irresponsible! In the ‘hostile environment’, migrants and undocumented people are excluded from free care leaving them afraid to access the NHS.

What a damning indictment of the Conservative Government – a decade in power that has undermined the ability of the NHS to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As coronavirus spreads, the hardest hit will be among the working class, the poorest, the most vulnerable sections of society - including, the elderly, the disadvantaged and disabled.

The principles of a national health service – free at the point of use, available according to need, publicly funded and provided – are not only morally correct: they enable society to guarantee the right for all to access healthcare free from fear. Nye Bevan’s vision in 1948 was for society to share the risks of ill health – ‘in place of fear’ – for the NHS to care for everyone without exception from the cradle to the grave. Those principles have never been needed more as we face COVID-19.

We owe so much to NHS staff, let down by government as they face the COVID-19 threat. We demand real-terms restoration of the funding needed to repair the damage done to the NHS and an end to privatisation. We are calling for an end to the charging of undocumented residents, including migrants – this would be a giant step forward for public health and restore universal access to the NHS. We want an end to outsourcing NHS contracts, to zero hours and insecurity for those staff placed outside the NHS; to re-prioritise public service and publicly provided care; to restore full staffing, pay levels and the beds lost. The NHS can be the most efficient and effective health service once again, with morale restored to its 1.5 million staff.

Solidarity to ASLEF members and transport workers.

Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair Keep Our NHS Public and retired NHS paediatrician

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