Thousands of public service workers contact us with ‘harrowing’ PPE stories

Ministers need to get to grips with supply problems

Thousands of people working in the NHS, social care and local services have contacted a UNISON hotline in the last week expressing anxiety at the lack of gloves, masks, eye protectors and gowns where they work.

Staff from across the UK’s public services say they’re scared that without the right protective equipment, they risk catching the virus and passing it on to their families, or the elderly and vulnerable people they work with and care for.

Keen to work with the government, UNISON has today (Thursday) passed the testimonies from staff working in hospitals, schools, care homes and out in the community, including social workers, teaching assistants, refuse collectors and police staff, to health secretary Matt Hancock.

In a letter accompanying the harrowing stories sent to UNISON, general secretary Dave Prentis urges the government to ensure without delay that staff get the necessary protective kit and reassure them supplies are on their way.

Every employee in care homes and supporting people in the community should be sent a checklist of what PPE they need and clear guidance about how to use it and social distance at work, says UNISON.

Employers must reassure staff they won’t be pressured into attending work when they should be self-isolating or have health risks. The government also needs to address urgently how to work better with wholesalers to solve equipment shortages, says the union.

The most disturbing stories to the UNISON PPE alert ‘hotline’ relate to delivery delays and shortages of protective equipment. Care staff describe the difficulties observing the two-metre rule when dealing with people with dementia or learning disabilities.

The union says the comments reflect just how scared and anxious staff are for the people they look after and their own families. The quotes submitted by workers online who contacted PPE alert include:

“Our clients are terrified we’ll bring the virus to their homes and we’re equally afraid of that. Many of us have isolated from our children because we fear for their lives.”

“My colleagues have been asked to wear bags over their faces for lack of surgical masks when needed. It’s getting to the point where I want to quit my job as I feel I’m endangering my own life.”

One woman caring for vulnerable adults, whose colleague is in hospital with Covid-19, said: “Staff are extremely stressed and anxious and feel they’re not being supported with basic PPE. We’ve no face guards and are constantly being coughed on and sneezed on by residents. Small plastic aprons covering no more than an adult bib would are no protection against this virus.”

The union points out that improved guidance has been issued but issues still persist with getting equipment through to staff.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “We can’t go another week with health workers, care staff and those providing key local services feeling exposed to harm.

“The safety of NHS and care workers is absolutely critical – they are leaving their families this Easter to care for the loved ones of others in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The very least they deserve is the equipment needed to keep them safe.

“It’s tragic to see deaths of public services workers and the people they support over the past few weeks. Unless the government can get to grips quickly with supply problems, the numbers dying could spiral.

“Staff care deeply about the elderly and vulnerable they look after. But the lack of protective equipment for those working in such close contact with others means lives are being put at risk.

“While most are safe at home, NHS and care staff are being scared out of their wits for fear of contracting and passing on the virus at work and to their loved ones.

“Sending these shocking stories to the heart of government shows ministers why there’s not a moment to lose. The government must get to grips immediately with this dreadful national situation. Otherwise the consequences don’t bear thinking about.”