Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 19, May 23, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Protect Our Health and Care Workers

An online meeting hosted by Waltham Forest Save Our NHS (WFSONHS) took place on May 12, 2020.

The aim of the meeting was to demonstrate solidarity with all health and care workers during this unprecedented pandemic, and to support their demands for adequate personal protective equipment in the face of criminal government indifference.

WFSONHS pointed out: "The roots of this crisis, as is now widely understood, lie in the years of underinvestment in our health and social care services, and cuts and privatisation. The response to the pandemic reveals that our health and wellbeing depends on workers who are often undervalued and underpaid." WFSONHS also drew attention to the massive contribution that migrants are making to the NHS, with disproportionate numbers losing their lives. It called on all to put an end to the "hostile environment" facing minorities.

Speakers at the online meeting included John Cryer MP, Jackie Applebee GP, Chair of Doctors in Unite, Aliya Yule, Migrant Organiser of the Healthcare for All Campaign, Charlotte Monro, former Chair of Whipps Cross Hospital Staff-side Committee, Dr Nadia Audali, Member Green for Barts Health, and Kitty Worthing, junior doctor and member of Docs not Cops. All were speaking in a personal capacity.

Here we reprint extracts from the contribution by Charlotte Monro.


If NHS and care services had not had to face the Covid-19 pandemic from such a cut down state, it is very likely the consequences would have been less tragic. The UK has the second lowest number of hospital beds among 24 comparable countries - 2.5 per 1,000 population, to Germany's 8 per 1000. And the third-lowest number of doctors, with just 2.8 per 1,000 people. More than 17,000 beds have been cut in the last 10 years. The nursing workforce in England entered the Covid-19 crisis with almost 40,000 unfilled posts, one major reason being the introduction of tuition fees, as the health unions point out. This has led to a 31 per cent reduction in university applications for nursing courses.

How did we get there?

Healthcare has always been underfunded for the needs of our population in East London. Looking back, we have had cycles where services are developed then hit by a wave of cuts, built back up, and destroyed again. Always we have fought to protect services, the staff and the community together.

Back in 1997, the Health Authority launched cuts of millions of pounds. The most profound memory for me was seeing a dedicated senior health visitor in tears as she faced the destruction of the outstanding services she and her team had built, including achieving unprecedented near universal uptake in vaccinations for children, in a community with high levels of poverty and diversity.

In every period of destruction was the same sense of horror - knowing, foreseeing, the consequences for patients and colleagues of decisions imposed.

This goes to the heart of a problem during this pandemic. When the people who have the knowledge and who care are overruled, ignored, - or silenced - the consequences can be disastrous.

In 2006, Whipps Cross Hospital was placed in financial turnaround. Four wards and two operating theatres were to close with the loss of some 400 jobs. With every ward that shut, the days the hospital was on red alert increased.

Whipps had been rated "good" for clinical care by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). None of this made sense until we found out that Whipps was in fact fighting for its existence as a District General Hospital. At the same time the local Primary Care Trust was planning a 45% cut in health visitors and school nurses and a 22% cut in district nursing. And our privatised porters and domestic staff at Whipps were fighting for NHS level pay and conditions

A huge campaign, including the biggest demo Waltham Forest had seen, did save Whipps Cross. The Primary Care Trust withdrew its proposed cuts to community nursing.

Wind forward to 2013. A year after Whipps merged into Barts Health Trust, in deficit with hefty PFI costs, the Trust went into a disastrous financial turnaround. One thousand staff were hit with a huge down-banding exercise, ward sisters and nurse specialists were made to compete for their jobs, in a toxic climate of fear and bullying. We lost so many experienced committed staff. I remember going with two of the affected band-six nurses to a Trust Board meeting. They came after nightshift to warn the Board of the consequences of their plans. " If you go ahead staff will walk."

Staff wrote hundreds of responses a team of sisters on a paediatric ward: the restructuring "will create a unit that is unsafe and damaging to the children and young people in our local community."

[We] "are dedicated to the Unit and feel incredibly disheartened at what the future holds."

We wrote, we spoke, we demonstrated, but that future was realised with tragic consequences. In 2015 an inspection by the CQC found Whipps Cross Hospital to be unsafe due to low staffing, over dependency on agency staff and a climate of bullying against staff. The Trust was put into special measures.

I found myself disciplined then dismissed after speaking out publicly as a union rep. Reinstated 18 months later thanks to a campaign and a tribunal. It is an outrage that now some health and care workers around the country are facing the same threat for speaking out over lack of PPE.

A hospital is a community and ours at that time was traumatised. What was destroyed in weeks has taken years to re-build. Colleagues tell me now through the coronavirus pandemic, the Whipps Community Spirit has been strong.

But never again. We must never again let such destruction happen.

Whipps continues to be a hospital under pressure. In A&E last December, for example, trolleys and beds lined up along the corridors with people waiting through the night for admission because the hospital was full, as was occurring across the country. These pressures can be put firmly down to the lack of available beds, with hospitals operating at well over 90% bed occupancy.

Whipps Cross has been regularly operating at 98/99% bed occupancy. That means that virtually no beds are free across the hospital, and patients are unable to go to the right specialist wards.


We cannot allow our NHS to just go back to operating permanently on the edge of its capacity, with staff constantly working to exhaustion.


Major health unions and the NUS have called on the Secretary of State for Health to reinstate health student bursaries and write off their debt.

Here, we are planning a new hospital. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right. The new Whipps must be built with the space and capacity to meet the needs of our fast growing population, and have the capacity to meet peaks of demand and future health crises.

WFSONHS are very concerned that the bed numbers being planned are if anything less than Whipps has now. We cannot allow the current unsafe pressures to be built into the future. Our health and care must be properly funded. This should be a key purpose of our economy, that the value of the staff who provide it, so clear to all in this crisis, must be recognised in reality. Only if we fight for this will it happen.


In survey after health-union survey, staff report that the pressure they are working under means they cannot give their patients the kind of care they wish. Ironically, during the pandemic, with far fewer people coming to Emergency Departments, physicians describe how they have had the time to treat patients the way they would want. In Whipps Cross, as elsewhere, non-Covid wards were closed so staff could be concentrated to give all the care those very sick patients have needed. Society must value our health and care staff!


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