Coronavirus: Health services underfunded and understaffed

"MERS Coronavirus Particles" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Image: Creative Commons)

As new coronavirus infections gather pace – in Britain and around the world – British Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims the country is “well-prepared with a fantastic NHS.”  Who’s he kidding?

NHS performance this winter was the worst on record – before a single patient developed coronavirus Covid-19. Decades of under-investment in all public services were followed by the past ten years of austerity cuts.

A senior doctor told a Nuffield Trust reporter: “If this is like the 2009 [swine] flu it’s going to be very bad. We’re in a worse position than we were then. If it’s worse than that we’re going to be in deep trouble.”

A London hospital critical care consultant said the government “is dishonest. I hear them say the NHS is well-prepared. We are not well-prepared, it is media spin.”

Of the first 44,000 Covid-19 patients in China, over 80% had a mild disease, 14% suffered severe infection such as pneumonia, and 5% needed critical care.

The British Thoracic Society of chest specialists warned respiratory wards are “understaffed and overstretched.” 57% of senior respiratory medics surveyed said they had no extra staff to rely on.

There are only 15 ‘ECMO’ beds in England to treat adults with the most severe respiratory failure. 80% of the 3,700 critical care beds in England were occupied two weeks ago, and the average occupancy of all hospital beds was 94%. Several hospitals reported 100% of beds already occupied.

The average hospital stay of Chinese Covid-19 patients has been eleven to 26 days. Already short of 100,000 staff, high workload means most NHS workers are on the edge. How will the NHS cope if thousands of staff catch the virus themselves and cannot work?

Waiting lists for planned surgery will grow even longer as operations get cancelled. Urgent non-surgical treatments could be delayed weeks or months if beds are filled and staff knocked out by Covid-19. Senior doctors will be forced to decide who gets treated and who doesn’t, potentially to die as a result.

Outside hospital, privatised social care companies employ low-paid workers, often on zero-hour contracts. Bullying management and harsh sickness absence policies force many to work when unwell. What a terrible way to run this vital service to the elderly and disabled – the most vulnerable to this disease!

Trade unions must demand sick pay is paid from day one at full pay rates. There must be no pressure on sick workers in any sector to continue working, threatening their own and others’ health.

Total world military expenditure was $1.8 trillion in 2018 – about $220 for every human being on the planet. Instead of defending the ruling classes’ wealth and power, such vast sums should be used to defend us all from disease, poverty and environmental destruction.

Nationalisation of big corporations, including the pharmaceutical industry; democratic planning by the working class, and international cooperation – in a word, socialism – could prevent new diseases like Covid-19 becoming disasters.

A workers’ charter for tackling the coronavirus crisis

Employers are signalling that self-isolation and sickness could mean loss of pay. The Tories are responsible for vulnerabilities caused by decades of austerity. Governments in parts of Europe are beginning to stop gatherings with the stated aim of controlling the spread of the virus, but have started to use this against strikes and protests.

The National Shop Stewards Network has produced a model motion of demands for trade unionists to put forward to defend working-class interests – available at shopstewards.net. The Socialist incorporates those points below as part of a workers’ charter for tackling the coronavirus crisis. More demands may become necessary as the situation develops – pick up future issues to read the latest.

Public services

Emergency funding to provide resources to protect workers, patients, students and service users in the NHS, education, transport and public services

The government must ensure that schools and health services are adequately funded to meet needs. This should include additional budgets in schools to provide supply staff to cover absence arising from the coronavirus, and to make sure that both staff and parents are fully compensated for any loss of earnings arising from the crisis

Education workload demands on staff must be reduced, and time made available to prioritise protecting the health and safety of staff and students

No to any removal of statutory class size limits as a response to managing teacher absences arising from novel coronavirus. Schools should not be treated as if they were just child-minding services. Increasing class sizes would damage education and heighten the risk of infection being spread further, as well as further increasing staff workload. Public health advice to education workers to hand-wash regularly throughout the day will only be possible if time is provided within the school day for this to take place

Vaccines to be available for free – nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies to guarantee research, production and supply

Reverse privatisation in the NHS, remove the privateers and fund a massive increase in health spending

Pay and benefits

No worker to pay the price for controlling the spread of the virus. Any worker who is required not to attend work, or is unable to do so because of childcare or transport closures, should receive full pay and not be forced to take annual leave. This should include workers in receipt of in-work benefits such as Universal Credit, who should be paid their full benefits and receive no sanction. Workers who follow health advice to be absent from work to avoid potential spread should be excluded from any attendance-management procedures

All workers should be entitled to full pay from day one of isolation or sickness for as long as it is needed

Self-employed, agency, zero-hour-contract and gig economy workers required to self-isolate to be granted emergency benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions, at full pay, for the equivalent of at least a full working week of 37.5 hours, or more if they usually work longer

Benefit claimants should be believed, excused signing on and attending mandatory interviews, and have their benefit payment advanced. Claimants should not be penalised for not being able to leave their homes and not being able to undertake labour-market activities because of lack of access to transport, internet, postal services, and so on

No redundancies, lay-offs or loss of pay in manufacturing, logistics or service industries because of supply issues

Stop abuses by the bosses

Any companies who claim they cannot comply with the necessary protections for workers must open their books to inspection by the workforce and trade unions. Small firms which genuinely cannot afford these measures to be underwritten by the government. Big firms which refuse to comply to be nationalised – with compensation only for proven need, not for super-rich bosses – to defend workers’ jobs and incomes

Democratic trade union oversight over any government or private sector emergency measures taken to contain the virus, such as restrictions on public assemblies or strikes, or supermarket supply rationing

For the Trade Union Congress and the unions, the biggest voluntary national organisation with over six million members across the country, to prepare to lead nationally coordinated strike action to protect people should necessary measures not be taken.

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