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PEOPLE’S Assembly national secretary Laura Pidcock joined trade unionists representing front-line workers last night to discuss the impact of the coronavirus emergency on their members.
Ms Pidcock said unions were at the forefront of the fight to get workers proper protection and would need to be at the heart of shaping what “our new society should look like” when we emerge from the pandemic.
GMB regional organiser Helen O’Connor, intensive care nurse and Unison executive member Jac Berry (in a personal capacity) and Communications Workers Union general secretary Dave Ward all raised horror stories reported by their own members having to work without adequate personal protective equipment and being denied the mass testing that experts agree is needed to prevent the spread of the virus, which official statistics said claimed another 881 lives Wednesday-Thursday.
Ms O’Connor said the praise now being heaped on NHS staff came after years of cuts and privatisation that had “really demoralised” the workforce.
“They’re not getting the PPE they need and they’re demanding mass testing and they’re not getting that,” she said, slamming a “failure of management right up to the government.”
GMB “absolutely [does] not accept that now is not the time to discuss pay – if NHS staff are heroes let’s treat them as heroes,” she said, vowing the union would stand by any members speaking out that management tried to silence.
Mr Ward said his union had been right to put aside its dispute with Royal Mail as postal workers were “ready to step up and put Royal Mail’s unrivalled national infrastructure to use as an emergency service.”
But he attacked the company for continuing to prioritise its commercial operations so workers were putting themselves at risk to deliver advertising and unaddressed mailouts, he said.
The picture across post offices was “a mixed bag,” he said, with provision of PPE and adherence to social distancing guidelines variable.
“We’ve said to members if you haven’t got the equipment, if PPE is not in place, if the company is not following government advice to the letter, you should not work. And we have had a number of offices walk out and found that where workers take that stand the equipment and the compliance gets better quickly.”
Ms Berry said nurses were now facing “unprecedented pressure” and savaged management practices that saw healthcare assistants die at home because of contracting the virus at work due to inadequate PPE.
“Most [hospital] trusts have draconian sickness policies designed to deter workers from taking time off sick,” she warned.
“The public health guidelines are wholly inadequate and in some cases are pie in the sky” because the recommended PPE isn’t available and the guidelines were written with a full staffing complement in mind. “You have nurses wearing binliners last week who are testing positive this week.”
Yet had the government invested properly in the NHS as trade unions, health workers and Labour have been demanding for years the picture could have been different.
The pandemic’s “devastating impact on working people around the world is not inevitable,” she said. “The NHS went into this crisis with 100,000 vacancies, 44,000 nursing vacancies. There is no cash injection large enough at this point to undo decades of cuts and underinvestment.”
Ms Berry also took aim at the way the NHS internal market creates chaos by requiring hospital trusts to purchase medical supplies commercially from varying suppliers.
“It raises the question – why can’t we produce and distribute our own medical supplies? Why is it up to a free market – that is currently in free fall?
“And what would society look like if workers were in charge instead of landlords, banks and bosses? Who runs society? Not them. It’s not the government who will beat Covid-19, it’s us,” she stormed.
The live Zoom discussion, which could be watched live on Facebook and is still viewable on the People’s Assembly’s Facebook page, is part of a new series of webinars called Making Sense of the Crisis that the anti-austerity campaign is holding weekly on Thursdays at 7pm.
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