I have become increasingly aware of one of the unintended consequences of the measures taken to address the pandemic. I have heard from colleagues who work as agency and bank nurses - both in the NHS but primarily in the independent sector - often highly skilled and experienced, frequently with ITU experience, who have been sitting at home unemployed, whilst colleagues in the NHS are in many places overwhelmed and the government calls up retired staff and students. This is because the expected surge in the number of Covid-19 cases failed to materialise - due, we can suppose to the social distancing restrictions put in place - after all elective surgery was cancelled across the country, 30,000 healthy patients awaiting care packages were discharged from NHS beds and independent sector hospital beds were blocked booked to the NHS.
This is ludicrous on a number of levels and simply highlights to me the absolute lack of preparedness at both a national and a local level for this pandemic, despite frequent warnings from experts and the experience of SARS, MERS, Swine Flu and seasonal flu, all in the last 20 years. It’s admirable that so many retired colleagues have chosen to return but we may be increasing their health risks when thousands of skilled, nurses who are already on the register are sitting at home. By drafting in students, we are cutting short their education and placing them in situations that they are neither trained nor prepared to face and where the mentoring and support they expect and need is simply not available. Again it’s great that so many have been prepared to put themselves forward but other nursing staff sit idle. Furthermore, these draftees have no death in service benefits available to them though this is something the RCN are working to correct.
To further highlight the woeful lack of preparedness, those nurses who are involved in coping with the pandemic are frequently doing so with insufficient and inadequate personal protection. Whilst it is easy to blame national government, it should be remembered that the provision and maintenance of adequate stocks of PPE is a local responsibility, with some employers being driven to frustration as they are unable to provide what is needed as the guidance from the Public Health England has changed a number of times and has been confusing in places.
Our RCN has been very busy addressing these issues and our efforts have contributed to the provision of new death in service benefits for public sector staff, the publishing of the true number of Covid-19 deaths, the increased distribution of PPE and the clarification of advice for healthcare workers, amongst other achievements. We continue to work hard to try and secure improvements for members working outside the NHS where the situation is often even more precarious for members. These issues have been coming up regularly - along with others such as the disproportionate impact on BAME groups and healthcare staff - at the weekly meetings of Council and spokespeople, drawn from both members and staff, have been vocal both publicly in interviews and articles and behind the scenes, lobbying ministers and MPs. Another letter to every MP has gone from Regional Directors and Council members as I write and many of us have had virtual meetings with MPs in our regions - Patricia Marquis (SE Regional Director) and I had a very fruitful conversation with Alan Whitehead, Labour MP for Southampton Test, as an example.
In other news, the Centre for Public Scrutiny presented the findings of the independent governance review to Council at our last meeting and the full report should be published and available to members during the course of May. Once it becomes available, I would urge you all to read it and contact me with your comments. In Council, we are discussing the best way to take the report forward into action and I would welcome your suggestions. As ever, I am keen to hear from you and I look forward to resuming my visits to branches and clinical areas as soon as restrictions are lifted.