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Sorting out long-standing problems with testing for NHS staff and the supply of personal protective equipment are among key conditions that must be met for services to resume after lockdown, unions have warned.
They said “fast, comprehensive and accessible” testing, and the “ongoing, ample supply of protective kit” must be in place for the NHS to be “opened up safely” in the wake of the initial wave of Covid-19.
Testing and PPE were among the measures called for in a nine-point blueprint drawn up by 16 health unions – including Unison, Unite, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives.
They highlighted that they wanted to avoid a repeat of the PPE supply problems experienced earlier in the pandemic, which had “sapped staff confidence, causing widespread and unnecessary anxiety”.
Other priorities set out in the plan included maintaining the two-metre rule and allowing certain staff to continue working from home, said the unions.
Otherwise, there could be a leap in infection rates which once again risked overwhelming the NHS, the unions warned in their Blueprint for Return.
“As hospitals get busier, and clinics and other services begin to reopen, the safety of staff and patients is paramount”
The blueprint also suggested that, over the next few months, trust managers deploy many of the 40,000 staff who have returned to the NHS to relieve areas experiencing staffing shortages.
Their redeployment from high-risk areas to ones under less pressure could allow overworked staff some much-needed time off, said the document published today.
In addition, they called for staff to be paid proper overtime and for every hour worked and that the contribution of healthcare staff is be reflected in future conversations about pay, due later this year.
The latter comes amid suggestions that the government is considering a public sector pay freeze among ways to pay the gigantic bill of its coronavirus support measures, like the furlough scheme.
But the unions insisted that there could “be no return to pay freezes and austerity”, noting the high value the public were placing on NHS staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
They asked the UK governments and employers to “work with them” to ensure that, as outpatient clinics and operations resume, the NHS continued to operate a “safety-first approach”.
Unison head of heath Sara Gorton, who also chairs the NHS group of unions, said: “Health employees across the NHS have continued to work while most of us have been safe at home.”
“All staff need adequate supplies of protective equipment that is fit for purpose”
She said: “As hospitals get busier, and clinics and other services begin to reopen, the safety of staff and patients is paramount. But this can’t happen without plentiful and constant PPE supplies.
“Tackling Covid has been a huge challenge, but this next phase will be a crucial test too. This nine-point plan will enable senior NHS managers to work with staff and unions to restart safely many of the services that had to shut up shop when the pandemic hit.”
Ms Gorton argued that, by acting on the priorities in the plan, employers and the government could “prevent a second wave of infection”.
She also warned the government against any moves to impose a pay freeze, highlighting the likely outrage this would cause among the public as well as NHS staff themselves.
“Every Thursday we applaud NHS staff from our doorsteps and show how much we value them. The public will expect the government to reflect this when pay talks open later in the year.
“People will understandably be horrified at talk of pay freezes for those at the forefront of the fight against the virus,” said Ms Gorton.
“There should not though be a return to business as usual whether in the short, medium or long term but a reset”
She added that the government could also show its “appreciation” for all NHS employees now by approving moves that guaranteed staff were paid properly for every hour they were at work.
Her comments were echoed by Hannah Reed, the Royal College of Nursing’s national officer and team leader, and acting staff side secretary.
“Staff must be paid in full for the extra hours worked during the crisis. Any talk of future pay freezes to pay the bill for the pandemic will outrage nursing, health care staff and the public alike,” she said.
“Any discussions about a return to business as usual need to take account of the need for more capacity and tools to restart services like outpatient clinics safely again.
“All staff need adequate supplies of protective equipment that is fit for purpose,” stated Ms Reed.
In response, NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer acknowledged the growing support for a pay deal and said the pandemic offered the chance of a “reset” on ways of working.
He said: “The last two months have reminded us that the NHS is fundamentally its dedicated people and teams.
“We should not underestimate the impact of Covid-19 on them, coupled with unprecedented changes in the way they work,” said Mr Mortimer.
“There is still the need to ensure confidence in the supply of access to PPE, and a measured restoration of our elective services.”
He stated, however, that there “should not though be a return to business as usual whether in the short, medium or long term but a reset”.
“Health leaders want to establish the impact of the last few months on staff and how best to improve how they are looked after for the longer term,” he said.
“There is also growing support for a longer term pay settlement for NHS staff,” noted Mr Mortimer, whose organisation has traditionally been involved in negotiations on pay on behalf of the government.
Nursing Times recently launched a new campaign – Covid-19: Are You OK? – which aims to ensure that supporting nurse mental health is firmly on the radar of employers and the government.
Our survey that showed almost all nursing staff were feeling more stressed and anxious than usual, with a third describing their mental health as bad during the pandemic.
In addition, health secretary Matt Hancock was questioned by Nursing Times during the daily No 10 briefing over what long-term help would be available for staff following the immediate crisis.
Measures set out in the Blueprint for Return
- Guarantee that there is enough suitable PPE to give staff the equipment they need to protect them when being in contact with the coronavirus is unavoidable – and that all communal staff areas are safe to use.
- Ensure that proper risk assessments are carried out for all staff – to apply social distancing, to help avoid contact with Covid-19 wherever possible and to manage that contact safely when there is no alternative. This must include access to all information on every risk factor, including on ethnicity, and proper training for the managers who will conduct them.
- Give staff and patients/clients unlimited access to testing and rapid results, so that resumed services can stay virus free for staff and patients.
- Extend the current Covid-19 pay arrangements so that staff get paid properly for all the hours they work – including applying overtime rates to hours over 37.5 a week.
- Make sure that staff get a proper work/life balance by recording and controlling excess hours, reviewing long and rotating shifts, enforcing working time regulations and encouraging staff to take rest breaks and annual leave.
- Use additional capacity from the Bring Back Staff initiative to support rapid establishment of safe staffing levels.
- Make sure that staff know about the support that is available to those most affected by the impact of the virus and encourage them to ask for help if they need it.
- Facilitate and support access to childcare, particularly for staff with pre-school children.
- Make a clear statement of intent that the contribution of all NHS staff, whatever their jobs, in dealing with this pandemic will be reflected in future conversations about pay.