Outrage as health workers told: “Don’t wear a mask – you’ll frighten the public”

Unions are warning the lack of personal protective equipment in the health and social care sectors is putting workers and the public at risk during the coronavirus crisis.

union-news.co.uk understands NHS workers in the South East of England are being told not to wear a protective mask in case they frighten the public, ambulance drivers are concerned about of a lack of PPE and cleaners are being told there is “no need” for a risk assessment before they enter a workplace.

GMB organiser Helen O’Connor told union-news.co.uk: “GMB members are now in a position where they are risking their own health and the health of their families to keep our hospitals safe throughout this pandemic.

“They are being sent into contaminated areas with either no PPE at all or PPE that is not fit for purpose. It is a scandal that our members are not provided with the most basic safety equipment. Those who have spent years hacking away at health and safety regulations telling us ‘it’s too much red tape’ must now hang their heads in shame”.

There are also reports of social care workers saying their employers are unable to supply basic PPE such as gloves, aprons, masks and hand sanitiser.

A Unite member who wished to remain anonymous said: “I have worked in social care for 30 years and like many of my colleagues we are fearful of what may happen in the coming days, weeks and months.

“The crisis created by the coronavirus has highlighted more than ever the need for a national care service making social care universally available to all.

“Many social care workers will be under enormous pressure to come on shift and do extra hours. Many will have to make the difficult choice between feeding their families or self isolating with no pay and the £94.00 Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

“The social care sector was already at breaking point only state intervention at an unprecedented scale can provide the support for the vulnerable in our society at this time of national crisis.”

Unite national officer Jim Kennedy said: “The social care sector is the fourth emergency service and it is crucial in helping the most vulnerable in society survive the coronavirus crisis.

“With workers reporting they are already at breaking point the government has to intervene to ensure that there is joined up thinking and those who need care continue to receive it safely.

“Given the critical role social care workers are playing it is absolutely essential that they are fully protected.

“Public Health England and the government need to intervene immediately to make sure, that essential PPE is supplied to the workers who must have it to do their jobs safely and protect the vulnerable who rely on their services.”

GMB organiser Helen O’Connor said: “All staff need PPE. We would expect to see dedicated coronavirus wards and staff provided with full PPE. At the moment I am going round the hospitals, including Croydon, nobody has been given it, they say they are told to only wear PPE if they need it.”

UNISON has received reports from workers that employers are denying them masks and basic protection such as hand gel, and that supplies of other kit are running low. These safety essentials are vital in cutting the risk of them infecting the frail people they support.

Some staff have been driven to tears for fear they will infect their own families. One care worker, whose daughter has underlying health issues, said: “I feel guilty that I’ll be the one who puts her life at risk, every time I go to look after someone else’s parent.”

UNISON is urging employees to call the new government hotline set up to ensure personal protection equipment (PPE) reaches care workers who need it. This includes anyone who is experiencing shortages or no safety kit at all, and those concerned they are not receiving the correct guidance.

Local councils commission home and residential care from thousands of different private and not-for-profit providers. The concern is this fragmented, understaffed and underfunded system is struggling to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Care workers and their employers have huge concerns about getting their hands on the equipment they need. It’s too easy for staff to fall through the net given councils are dealing with many different care providers.

“Supplies for the NHS have rightly been given a lot of attention. But any shortages in social care are equally crucial. Solving this problem could help reassure thousands of care staff that they’re not putting themselves or the people they look after at risk.”

“We’d urge everyone who has a concern about PPE to call the new government hotline. This way we can ensure all providers have adequate supplies to protect staff and the people they care for.”

Last week the RCM issued a warning that midwives and maternity support workers were working without PPE.

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