Ambulance workers are in a “mutinous mood” over the lack of proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
One frontline ambulance worker in London, who did not want to be named, says that workers are “terrified” of carrying out their duties without the right kit. They told Socialist Worker, “When you’re in the ambulance service you’re taught the first thing is, ‘Safety, safety, safety.’
“They said we need a certain grade of masks, but now they have lowered the level and it doesn’t sit right with people.
“We feel we are being let down—there is a real mutinous mood over the lack of kit.”
The Tory government has brought in the British Army to distribute the equipment. Also the retail logistics firm Clipper Logistics has begun daily deliveries to NHS trusts and community healthcare partners, according to the Health Service Journal magazine.
Clipper Logistics has previously been denounced by its workers for “putting people's lives at risk” through a lack of social distancing.
Several workers at Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, said warehouse staff were “crammed into corridors” and given no hand sanitiser.
The privatisation of the NHS Supply Chain by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments has contributed to the chaos. Bringing in more private companies isn’t a solution.
There are also serious questions over what is being delivered.
Workers are worried that what they’re getting is far below the standards recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The worker said, “You start a shift with about three to five surgical masks, which are just paper essentially. When you’re breathing with the surgical mask on, it frosts up your glasses, so they are not air tight.
“There are only two FFP3 masks for each vehicle, but they’re what the WHO says is the main standard.
“Once the surgical masks are used up, you drive to a depot, which isn’t necessarily yours. There will be a team leader with a box on their desk, essentially guarding it—we are talking seriously low stocks.”
Two weeks ago The London Ambulance Service (LAS) sent a directive to ambulance terminals saying that “due to high call demand there is a request for crew to utilise 1x mask whilst stock is mobilised to sites.”
It went on, “The attending clinician to wear a mask and the remaining clinician to stand 2 metres from the patient where clinically appropriate.”
The worker said that relying on public appeals for PPE “defy logic” in the long term. “The equipment is being taken from dentists and other services, but that source of supply will run out,” they explained.
The ambulance service was already stretched to breaking point before the coronavirus crisis hit. In January the Care Quality Commission watchdog downgraded the LAS's safety rating over fears that understaffing meant workers couldn’t answer calls.
“You would drop off a patient at a hospital and 15 minutes later you’re onto the next job, then the next one and the next one,” the worker explained. “On one night shift last month I started at 6am and I was mopping up calls that had been made four to five hours ago.”
The staffing crisis and underfunding had a knock-on impact on workers’ health and safety. “Our union Unison was saying a year ago that we should be ‘fit tested’ for a mask to see if its air tight,” said the worker. “But LAS’s response was that they couldn’t spare the manning.
“Even in January, LAS weren’t taking it seriously and would cancel tests saying they couldn’t take people off the road.”
The unions have been slow to take up demands, because they want a seat at the top table alongside ministers and hospital bosses.
But alongside the “mutinous mood” among ambulance workers, Socialist Worker has received reports that nurses at an intensive care unit at a south London hospital have successfully won demands for proper PPE. They would not have gone into work without the kit.
Workers’ anger over the lack of proper PPE could force them into taking action against the Tory government responsible for a crumbling NHS.