Socialist Worker

Coronavirus rips through dangerously overcrowded hospitals 

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2737

Workers say patients are in distress as wards are services are stretched to capacity (Pic: PA)


Death has become a regular experience for Emily and her colleagues at Homerton Hospital in east London.

Increasing numbers of people are forced to endure prolonged and excruciating deaths and workers are stretched beyond breaking point. 

“Patients are so sick and distressed,” the occupational therapist told Socialist Worker, 

Emily says “there’s only a small section of the hospital that’s not” taken by coronavirus patients. 

“It’s people of all different ages,” she described. “Someone in intensive care is in their 20s and very distressed. 

“I work on elderly care where 70 year olds would normally be young for us, but there are patients from 30 to 90 year olds and that’s unusual.”

The terrible scenes inside and outside hospitals are about to get a lot worse. 

London’s hospitals are less than two weeks from being ­overwhelmed—and that’s even under the “best” case scenario. A briefing from health officials showed that there would be a ­shortfall of 1,500 beds by 19 January if coronavirus grew by 4 percent a day. 

On Friday London mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” in the capital, warning that the spread of coronavirus was now “out of control”.

Shortfalls

These shortfalls would be despite the NHS and private hospitals increasing capacity. 

On 5 January the capital’s NHS already had an “unmitigated surplus” of just 46 intensive care beds. 

If the scenarios happen ambulances will simply have nowhere to discharge people, meaning more will die without care in their homes. 

Nurse Brenda feels “burned out” after working at an intensive therapy unit (ITU/ICU) in east London. “ITUs are at their fullest capacity,” she told Socialist Worker. 

“Right now we have increased ITU beds by three times and they are already full.

“We are looking after more patients than we usually do. 

“Back in March nurses looking after two or three ITU patients was unusual—now it’s the norm within Covid-19 ITU’s.” 

In London and other cities ambulances already have been forced to queue, sometimes for hours, outside hospitals. 

Some hospitals have had to turn away ambulances due to lack of beds of oxygen supplies. Nina, a dietitian who works on the 

frontline on wards in Hertfordshire, says they’ve “sent patients out to Leicester”. 

“We’ve had a much higher amount of patients than in the previous peak,” she told Socialist Worker.

“Intensive care is entirely Covid-19, it’s been really challenging.”

Catherine, a nurse in central London, has “been on the wards for nearly 40 years and it feels different”. 

“I know people use the word unprecedented a lot, but it really is,” she told Socialist Worker. 

“The things that happened under the Tories in the 1980s when people were dying on trolleys—that’s happening again.”

The Tories and the right wing press have normalised daily death. It’s time for a reckoning. 


NHS workers speak out—‘We’re in big trouble’

Poverty pay, rocketing workloads and slashing support for health care students have fuelled an acute staffing crisis during the last decade of Tory rule. 

The NHS began the coronavirus crisis with a shortage of 122,000 full time permanent staff, including 41,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors.

This has been compounded by staff sickness—and burnout—after the pandemic began. 

Brenda said, “Working in the NHS has never been easy, but before the pandemic you knew that after a couple of very busy shifts you usually had a better one.

Exhausted

“At the moment all our shifts are so busy and stressful that most of us feel exhausted.”

It’s not just nurses working in intensive care that are feeling the strain. 

Elizabeth works as a health care assistant on a zero hours contract in the West Midlands. 

“One morning I was trying to book a shift for the afternoon,” she told Socialist Worker. 

“There were still 40 shifts outstanding for that morning. 

“And you’ll go onto the computer system to book shifts on and you’ll see that 60 are outstanding.

Tories to blame for NHS virus collapse
Tories to blame for NHS virus collapse
  Read More

“There are hardly any staff around, they’ve come to be reliant on bank agency and zero hours staff like me.” 

Elizabeth says that “at the beginning of the pandemic there were enough staff”. 

“But that shows my acceptance of low standards,” she said. “I mean there was enough staff to perform the jobs and go home exhausted. 

“It’s worse now.” 

Nina says dieticians were “down to 50 percent of our staff, there were only four of us at one point”. 

“Normally there are about ten of us,” she explained.

Junior

“One of us was doing all of ITU, so that left two junior ones and myself to see everybody else. 

“It was really unsafe working conditions and unsafe.

“We use green, amber and red to rate how we’re doing as a department and we’ve been arguing we should be rated as red.  

“Red means we’re not able to see urgent patients. 

We’re in big trouble if we’re red and that’s’ been happening all through Christmas.”

But Nina said that even if all urgent cases were seen by dieticians, the system was stretched to a degree its “compromising patient safety”. 


The government ignored vital opportunities to stop the crisis

Health workers are angry that the Tories didn’t use the lower rates of Covid-19 infection during the summer to prepare for the catastrophic second wave. 

The failures of their strategy has directly led to the death and destruction currently bringing the health service to its knees. 

The government handed hundreds of millions of pounds to outsourcer Serco instead of building a functioning test and trace system. 

Ministers knew about the new strain of coronavirus and were warned that schools were key areas for transmission before the New Year. 

Yet they refused to announce a lockdown or provide support for people just as cases and hospital admissions increased in December. 

Emily had to “steel myself” before returning to work after Christmas. 

“While I was off I didn’t stop looking at emails and WhatsApps,” she said. “I have to be prepared for going back and not get a shock like last time. 

“I went in intentionally very optimistically to just try and get through it.” 

Catherine says that before Christmas “we were getting a sense of the pressure on beds”. “People in beds had to be justified—even our cancer patients,” she explained.

“There aren’t enough nurses to care for all the sick patients.

“Over Christmas we had really young health workers—in their early 20s—falling ill.

“Sicknesses seem worse this time around.” 

Workers are struggling to maintain care when so many of their colleagues have been struck by Covid-19 or are forced to stay at home and self isolate. 

Emily added, “We’ve got people off shielding and off sick at home because coronavirus has just ripped through staff recently.

“I think that’s why the hospital started letting us wear the FFP3 masks for all Covid-19 contacts. We had an email through saying we could and it felt like such a shock, it’s like admitting that we’ve been at risk the whole time. 

“I could cry with relief—all this time we’ve been working with surgical masks.” 


sdfs

Workers organised for a pay rise last summer (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Tories still spurn demands for NHS workers’ pay rise

Health workers’ morale has gone through the floor. 

“I have seen some of my colleagues trying to cope with anxiety problems in the last few weeks,” said ITU nurse Brenda. 

“We were not feeling ready for another wave as we are still physically and emotionally affected from the last one.

“The mood is quite low. Health workers are usually quite resilient, but lately I have found a lot of my colleagues feeling burnout due to working under so much pressure for months now.” 

They are forced to cope with traumatising work environments, and yet Tory politicians are still denying them a measly pay rise. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock made sure to give health workers another slap in the face with his recent announcement that any pay increases would be “unfortunately delayed”. 

“We feel undervalued and insulted by how the government is treating us,” said Brenda. 

“Saying it’s not the time to talk about a pay rise for nurses after years of real terms pay cuts has left most of us disheartened.

When Emily heard the weekly Clap for Carers was returning, she thought, “I’m just too tired for it”. 

“I hear about clapping and I just think this whole situation could have been prevented.” 

The blame for the deaths, demoralisation and disaster in the NHS lies with the Tories.

Workers’ names have been changed

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.