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NHS Whistleblower speaks out about the NHS

Senior mental health nurse Karen Reissmann was sacked last year after being found guilty of gross misconduct by Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust for speaking out against NHS cuts. Tom Haines-Doran catches up with her to ask about the latest in the campaign to have her reinstated

May 11, 2008
5 min read

Where are you at with the campaign to get you reinstated?

The campaign started when I was first suspended June 2007] for bringing the Trust into disrepute. We had 700 people on strike for 14 days of action, followed by further action in November. My appeal was turned down and is now going to an employment tribunal. MPs will be asked to sign [Early Day Motion 443 which calls for my reinstatement and there may be further days of strike action. We’re trying to persuade Alan Johnson to sign the motion. It’s ironic that I am being supported by Stephen O’Brien the Shadow Minister for Health, and not his opposite in the Labour government.

Is the return to work something that can keep the campaign alive?

The campaign is not going to fizzle out. I have received an incredible amount support from my colleagues and many others. People are worried about the Health Service; there is a fear of speaking out and a number of health workers are saying they’re glad that I did. One of the questions I was asked by the management was ‘what loyalty do you have to our organisation?’ I said I have plenty of loyalty to the patients, but what they wanted to know was what corporate loyalty I had to the individual trust. The aim of my suspension was to break our union, but now we have seven more Unison stewards than at the start. The fight to stop staff cuts in our service, the campaign that led to my suspension in the first place, has been won – the managers have conceded they will keep the original staffing levels.

During the campaign you brought in many activists from the Trade Union movement and the left. How was this achieved?

One of the first things we recognised was that we needed to mobilise political pressure from the outside. There was a deliberate strategy of including trade unionists and service user groups and networks. We have fought to get users heard. They overcame the stigma of mental illness and have been articulate in their defence of the service. We made an effort to write to every Unison branch to pass information on and particularly helpful were the CWU and RMT unions who made donations to the campaign and invited us to speak at their meetings.

Regarding the NHS in general what would you say are the key issues?

One of the key problems is the tendering process. It identifies areas of work, for example, hip replacement operations and parcels them off. The idea is to create a competitive market within the Health Service. South Manchester Psychiatric Unit is run by a Private Finance Initiative that uses a private contractor to clean the ward and it costs the NHS four times what it did when the work was in-house. Also more of the work is target-driven.

As an NHS employee how would you say working conditions have changed during your career?

When I started 25 years ago we provided a service to patients. Now targets are the be all and end all and we can no longer prioritise in terms of need.

On the other hand 25 years ago nurses’ wages were worse because they were less unionised. But with this slight improvement in wages has come a greater workload. The pace is unrelenting. For example occupancy rates are much higher. Now there are 20 beds for 24 or 25 patients with occupancy rates at 120 per cent to 130 per cent. This leads to stress amongst the staff and patients.

Would you recommend a job in the Health Service to people?

I love the work and the people I work with are fantastic. If you do a job that is helpful to others it is generally more satisfying. But more time is spent filling out forms and battling bureaucracy. I would say ‘do it’ but you’ll have to fight your corner.

Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko gave an overview of what a privatised health system looks like in the US, is that something that could happen here?

Nothing is automatic about the NHS. People who fought in the Second World War weren’t prepared to go back to the provisions available in the 1930s. Unlike the Tories, this government dresses up privatisation in complicated proposals. They don’t say they will privatise it but they are in effect creating a market – they’re saying that 15 per cent of the Health Service should be outside the NHS. Not only has the NHS management chosen private operators to run aspects of the service but now private companies are set up to do this on their behalf.

More information

Reinstate Karen

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