December saw nurses—overworked and underpaid— launch their biggest strike in British history. Nurses and ambulance workers are already on strike, but junior doctors and midwives are expected to join them this year, with others likely to. Their central demand is improved pay, with governments across the UK offering real terms pay cuts to NHS workers.
This comes as more and more NHS trusts must operate food banks for staff struggling to cover rising costs of living. A recent survey showed that nearly a third of nurses are struggling to afford rising food and heating bills. Unfortunately, hand clapping doesn’t pay the bills. Just as with the NHS workers’ strikes of the 1980s solidarity needs to be shown across the trade union movement. We are all horrified seeing the news stories of people—loved ones—dying because they can’t get an ambulance or basic hospital care. The NHS strikes are about our collective safety. The Tories’ destruction of the NHS is killing people. Delays in receiving emergency care are killing up to 500 people a week. 335,000 people have been murdered by austerity in the UK since the Tories came back to power, and so far there have been 215,000 deaths from COVID-19.
More than 40,000 nurses quit the NHS last year and the NHS has more than 133,000 staff vacancies. Nurses are being driven into the private sector or out of nursing as a result of poor pay and poor working conditions. All this comes as budget cuts continue to bleed the NHS dry and threaten patient safety. Clearly, the underfunding of the NHS is the main cause of its demise over the last decade but this doesn’t mean the pressure of COVID-19 can be ignored. Ignoring COVID-19 doesn’t make it go away nor does it relieve the pressure. Hospitalisations surged again during the recent wave and there is no end in sight as SARS-CoV-2 continues to mutate away from any fantastical notion of dependable immunity.
The normalising of COVID-19
The rise in worker militancy across the country also provides an opportunity to fight for COVID safety in the workplace. Nowhere is this more urgent than at the NHS itself, where workers have been abandoned by their employers, despite SARS-CoV-2 being an airborne pathogen that causes considerable death, debility and disability. NHS workers are still not provided with adequate personal protective equipment. It means they are still being routinely and casually exposed to the virus whilst patients lack safety. Data from the end of last year shows 40% of those hospitalised with COVID-19 contracted it in hospital, with the figure rising exponentially. Clear evidence that policy is failing patients, and this is after more than 2,100 health and social care workers died from Covid-19, in England and Wales, in the first two years of the pandemic. When someone enters a hospital they should be able to do so without the fear of contracting Covid. This unsafe environment is a hazard to workers and patients alike.
Our ability to live with the illness capitalism imposes depends upon the NHS to be there for us when we’re sick and injured
There is often a false distinction made between those who are imagined as intrinsically vulnerable to COVID-19 and everyone else. Maybe you were fine with your first infection, but what about your fifth? We don’t know yet but research does show COVID-19 has potential to cause long term damage to the body. There are currently around 2,200,000 people with Long COVID, with more than half having had it for more than 12 months, and a quarter for more than 2 years. Around 5% of healthcare workers in the UK are currently suffering with it, after working to save other peoples’ lives. There are countless accounts of healthcare workers with Long COVID abandoned by their employer and forced into poverty. If the demands of the unions don’t include their colleagues who are suffering through Long COVID, then all workers are left vulnerable should they develop Long COVID.
Organising for a safer world
In May, the Trades Union Congress surveyed its members and found that only 29% of workers (and just 14% of disabled workers) felt safe in the workplace after the slashing of COVID-19 workplace safety measures earlier this year. 10% of workers were forced to work despite showing signs of COVID-19 infection. Their survey also found that those with Long COVID lacked support and were disbelieved. A study in the Lancet found that 22% of people with Long COVID were unable to work, and 45% required a ‘reduced work schedule compared to pre-illness.’ A recent survey from YouGov suggests that 61% support the reintroduction of masking on public transport, with 49% supporting masking in indoor public spaces. This despite more than a year of British governments and media telling us it’s safe to “live with the virus”. NHS workers, however, are perfectly placed to fight back against the government’s policy of forced reinfection.
This is a time to push for not just essential pay increases but also safer working environments. It’s not just a case of solidarity with colleagues debilitated by the virus— one infection can shift you from the category of worker to ‘surplus’. These strikes require all of us to stand in solidarity with healthcare workers. Unions must be held to account to represent their members with Long COVID, disability and who are immunocompromised. After all, our ability to live with the illness capitalism imposes depends upon the NHS to be there for us when we’re sick and injured. This is an opportunity to grow a larger political movement that unites workers across the country with the millions of sick and disabled people (and their loved ones) who are still forced to live in fear of (re)infection. Despite proclamations to the contrary, the pandemic is far from over.
If health worker unions don’t put COVID safety back on the table, then who can? The workers that have been most affected are the most obvious place for pushing back on the normalisation of continued death, debility and disability of COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic continues to impede healthcare. If healthcare workers were to push back against the government’s policy of forced reinfection then we might see other sectors of society follow suit. Healthcare workers are best placed, with us all in collective solidarity, to resist the ongoing social murder and social maiming of austerity and the pandemic, and improve the collective safety of everyone.