Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 12, April 4, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Health Workers Fight For Testing and Personal Protective Equipment

Weeks after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak and the government claiming that testing of health staff for the coronavirus and that providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was a "top priority", only on Monday, April 1, did the government announce that they were removing the cap and that Trusts had been given the green light to test "as many of their staff as possible". At the same time, the government announced a "PPE audit" amid widespread shortages of basic and vital safety equipment for health workers. However, what is not being said is that in reality this means that health staff are still not being tested in any large numbers and that they are all at great risk and peril fighting a disease without the proper protective equipment.

One health worker had this to say to Workers' Forum: "What is not being discussed with us is how testing will take place, which needs to be done immediately to ensure that staff can work with confidence in fighting this disease without catching it or spreading it. There are concerns about how the testing of all essential staff for the coronavirus will take place. It needs to apply to all medical and non-medical staff in our hospitals and community, as well as care homes, and carers in private homes as quickly as possible."

They also said: "There is some PPE but there is not enough of the right PPE equipment for staff at our hospitals and for working in the community, particularly concerning eye protection. There are literally no visor masks left in our community services and what is being provided is completely inadequate."

According to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), the guidance of Public Health England (PHE) is seriously being questioned by clinicians because their guidelines are suspected of downgrading protection due to the shortage of the right PPE. For example, the HSJ points out in an article[1] that it has seen guidance sent to staff at University Hospitals of Leicester earlier this week which tells staff: "Whenever you enter a clinical area you should wear a face mask." It also indicates that in all areas, regardless of the patients being treated, all staff should wear eye protection, a plastic apron and one layer of gloves. The article points out that the current PHE Guidance is out of date and that this guidance is currently being reviewed. Also, on April 1, an HSJ report describes doctors in the Southend Group at Southend Hospital laying out concerns in letter to trust chief Clare Panniker amid criticism over PPE shortages nationwide.[2]

Another health worker, a trade union representative, pointed out: "Surgical masks are not an acceptable standard for this virus at our hospitals. FFP3 masks should be the minimum, but this does not cover eye protection and the eyes are one of the most vulnerable to infection. There is also the question that such protective equipment should be provided to essential portering and domestic, catering staff and others who enter clinical areas, which is not happening at the moment."

The actions of the government and the state of promising eye-watering sums to private companies and individuals, whilst at the same time declaring the problem solved, amounts to reckless action which is costing lives, including the lives of medical staff who are fighting the outbreak. Having claimed two weeks ago that they were ramping testing up to 25,000 tests a day, the government is now admitting that due to "lack of reagents" and laboratory space, they have only been doing at most 10,000 a day but were testing staff as a "priority". How is it possible, then, that as late as this Thursday, tests of health workers still only amounted to 2,800 according to BBC News, with the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock claiming this figure was 5,000 tests in his briefing on Thursday evening. Even if the higher figure is to be believed, there are 1.3 million staff in the NHS, and tens of thousands of care workers. Hancock also claimed that they would reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. The conclusion can only be that there is no addressing of the reality of the problems in these claims.

What this unacceptable situation is revealing is the inability of the government and the state to organise to solve such vital questions in fighting such an outbreak. Even given the situation that the economy is designed to pay the rich, including via the constant privatisation and profiteering of the supply chain of the NHS that has seriously hampered the supply of vital equipment to save lives, there is still no excuse. The government makes no attempt to mobilise the people to solve these problems and open up a front of production and commandeer the fantastic productive capacity of the country, with all its educated and talented working class and people. Instead, working people are being blocked from this vital production, let alone being mobilised and encouraged to produce, and do everything that is needed to defeat the virus. Yet it is the very fight of the doctors and all medical staff over testing and PPE that is showing by example what governments should be doing, and is inspiring the working class to take the initiative themselves in fighting the virus and its spread.


[1] Annabelle Collins and Dave West, "Trusts advise widespread use of PPE as staff 'refuse to see patients'", HSJ, March 28, 2020

[2] Nick Kituno, "Medics threaten to limit services to 'bare minimum' without correct PPE", HSJ, April 1, 2020


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