Socialist Worker

Anxious, exhausted and angry—health workers speak out

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the dire state of Britain’s underfunded NHS. Health workers battling the virus spoke to Socialist Worker about the harsh reality of being on the frontline

Issue No. 2697

The NHS is at breaking point

The NHS is at breaking point


‘The trust has big incident meetings and then emails staff, but porters, cleaners and domestics don’t get them because we’re outsourced’

Isobel, hospital domestic, Derbyshire

Domestics, cleaners and porters are the forgotten staff. We’re like mushrooms—kept in the dark, fed on shit.

Some staff aren’t told that they have confirmed coronavirus cases on their wards. The cases are being kept on different wards. One patient is on a ward where people have lower immunity. Another one came in and was only confirmed five days later.

Doctors and nurses are having mask-fit tests, where aerosol is sprayed onto the mask and if you can taste it the mask doesn’t work for you. None of our staff have been offered it.

There are no distinct rules. It feels like the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing. Of course things change—that’s the nature of the beast—but you’d think there would be a contingency plan.

The trust has big incident meetings and then emails staff, but porters, cleaners and domestics don’t get them because we’re outsourced.

They should be looking after our health and they aren’t doing that very well. One worker was told to reuse the same mask. I’m telling staff, ‘If we run out of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) clothing, don’t go into the ward.’

There is a lot more pressure on us—staff are having to self-isolate and we are running out of supplies. Things like paper towels and masks are going from the hospital warehouse.

We have to clean in a different way because of coronavirus and we don’t have enough staff to cope.

There’s no time to get other stuff done. They put out an advert to hire more people, but that will take training and time.


‘Someone I work with came back from maternity leave recently. But their baby developed a temperature so they had to self-isolate’

Ben, nurse in GP surgery, east london

We’ve been testing patients for temperatures in the reception area before they get into the consultation. If they’ve got one, we tell them to self?isolate to protect other patients.

There are different ways of testing temperature. One does not involve touching anyone, where you point a thermometer at someone’s forehead. 

The other is where you put the thermometer into a person’s ear.

There aren’t enough of the best ones so we have to touch people. We may be at risk of getting coronavirus—but aren’t tested.

Someone I work with  came back from maternity leave recently. But their baby developed a temperature—which babies can tend to get—so they had to go home and self-isolate.

Because of the NHS crisis and staff shortages, people either don’t want to go into the service or only last a couple of years. It means nurses in general practice are getting on a bit and are in the more vulnerable group themselves.

There isn’t just a winter crisis, it’s a year-round crisis—there is no real respite in the NHS. And since Covid-19 there has been a real frustration.


‘Nurses are not angels—people are anxious. One nurse wouldn’t go into the infectious diseases ward’

Catherine, nurse, central london

We’ve always been told to protect ourselves from flu with more robust masks, but we are now having to use flimsier ones. People are worried and don’t know if it’s safe.

The masks are a bit like the very thin ones you would get in an operating theatre. 

And there are concerns that we could scale down from the special PPE to other protective clothing when dealing with positive cases.

Without the resources, you have to improvise and compromise. You might not have the special visor, so you find some goggles and use them.

You need training for putting on PPE and there are different procedures for taking and moving swabs for Covid-19. 

But at the moment, training is still selective for staff and it happens on an ‘as and when’ basis.

A handful of people had the proper PPE when doing swabs, but on my ward we don’t have it.

Of course we’re ready to do what’s needed. But health workers are not angels living on thin air—there is a huge element of the unknown and people are anxious. Some people are reluctant to do bank agency shifts—one nurse wouldn’t go into infectious diseases and it wasn’t even Covid-19.

Testing health workers for the virus isn’t happening and it’s a real worry. My daughter, who is a university student, has got symptoms of coronavirus. If my child comes home, then I won’t be able to do the shifts that I’m rostered for next week.

We’ve already got a couple of staff who have had to self-isolate and we can’t all not go into work.

The government has created chaos in the NHS in the last decade. How can we now quickly find the shortfall of 40,000 nurses and doctors?


‘We know how many vulnerable people don’t get adequate care already. Now it’s going to get worse’

Annie, paramedic

We have never seen anything like this before in the NHS. There is fear everywhere.

In the ambulance service we are incredibly busy. And for many of our patients the main issue is fear. Fear that they have coronavirus, fear they may get it if they go to hospital, fear that they or their loved ones will die.

So we spend entire shifts trying to manage other people’s fears as well as their symptoms. We are trying to treat, reassure and make safe plans with every patient.

But we are afraid too. And we’re angry. We’re angry at the lack of face masks to protect us, the constant struggle to get basic equipment to keep us safe.

We know how much the NHS was struggling before this crisis hit. We know how many vulnerable people don’t get adequate social care or support for mental health problems, how terrible living conditions are for some families. Now that is going to get worse.

The government has spent years systematically undermining the health service. We’re sickened by it having the cheek to say the NHS is getting all the resources it needs.

We are also afraid of the risks to ourselves and our families. We get very little information about patients before we arrive. Despite the call takers’ best efforts we often have no idea what we are walking into.

We are often caught out by patients we think don’t have any Covid-19 symptoms, but then we find out a bit more. Or a child or partner or friend will suddenly walk into the room coughing. 

There is no more community testing or contact tracing, so we don’t know which of our patients has the virus.

Unsurprisingly, hospitals are struggling too. When we rush our sickest patients in on blue lights we can’t be sure what we’ll find there—is there a bed or a sideroom available?

Are there enough hospital staff ready and kitted out to receive the patient?

Things are changing every day.

We are bombarded with new guidelines and circulars with barely a spare moment to read the updates. 

Lots of us are trying to juggle working long shifts with caring for children or elderly relatives, or doing a shopping run for friends and neighbours who are self-isolating.

Those of us active in unions are spending a lot of time and energy trying to organise. We want to ensure the safety of our colleagues and patients, to chase up PPE, to raise difficult questions with management.

We’re tired and anxious and overstretched. But we’re also sustained by a commitment to do our best for our patients and by the strong public support for the NHS.


‘Not testing NHS staff means no one knows if we are safe or not’

Victoria, occupational therapist, east london

I’ve been off work for two weeks now, and it’s very frustrating. My two year old daughter developed a cough, so I had to self-isolate. Then as she got better, my eight year old son developed symptoms and I’ve had to extend that isolation.

If I’d been coronavirus tested and cleared, I could be back at work at a time when my hospital really needs me. Not testing staff means no one knows if we are safe or not, and that includes people still working.

When the pressure is on to make way for a large number of new patients, people doing my job are key. As an occupational therapist I help to get patients who are fit out of hospital and back home with the support they need.

At the moment the hospital needs as many side rooms for isolating patients as we can get. But lack of staff is holding up getting existing patients discharged.

And the lack of staff is affecting all patients. Those who are sick with the virus need a lot more staff time because we have to be a lot more careful about infection risk.

Already many staff at my hospital are off sick or self-isolating. It makes me angry that we cannot be tested while MPs and celebrities—who in my opinion are completely worthless —are paying for tests privately.

All names have been changed to protect staff


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