Health unions publish blueprint for the safe opening up of the NHS

Fast, comprehensive and accessible testing, and the ongoing, ample supply of protective kit are among measures that must be in place for the NHS to be opened up safely as the UK begins to ease the lockdown, say health unions today (Friday).

The 16 unions – including UNISON, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Unite and GMB – have drawn up a nine-point blueprint, which also calls for staff to be paid properly for every hour worked.

The unions want to ensure that – as out-patient clinics and operations resume – the NHS continues to operate a safety-first approach.

This means, says the blueprint, maintaining the two-metre rule, allowing certain staff to continue working from home and regularly redeploying those in high-risk areas to ones under less pressure.

Otherwise there could be a leap in infection rates which risks overwhelming the NHS, the document warns.

The unions represent more than a million staff working in the NHS across the UK – including porters, nurses, radiographers, physiotherapists, midwives, 999-call handlers, cleaners, healthcare assistants, dieticians and paramedics.

They all want to avoid a repeat of the protective equipment (PPE) supply problems experienced earlier in the pandemic. These shortages sapped staff confidence, causing widespread and unnecessary anxiety, say unions.

Access to readily available PPE is especially important as employers in other parts of the economy begin to open up their workplaces and source protective kit for staff, say unions.

The blueprint also suggests that, over the next few months, trust managers deploy many of the 40,000 staff who’ve returned to the NHS to relieve areas experiencing staffing shortages. Their presence could allow overworked staff some much-needed time off, say unions.

While the priority remains saving lives, and keeping health workers and patients safe, unions are calling on the government to ensure staff working through the pandemic get proper overtime and are paid for every hour they’re at work.

Unions want NHS employers to work with them so that the high value the public has placed on staff is reflected in pay talks due to take place later this year. There can be no return to pay freezes and austerity, say the unions.

Commenting on the blueprint, UNISON head of heath Sara Gorton, who also chairs the NHS group of unions, said: “Health employees across the NHS have continued to work while most of us have been safe at home.

“As hospitals get busier, and clinics and other services begin to reopen, the safety of staff and patients is paramount. But this can’t happen without plentiful and constant PPE supplies.

“Tackling Covid has been a huge challenge, but this next phase will be a crucial test too. This nine-point plan will enable senior NHS managers to work with staff and unions to restart safely many of the services that had to shut up shop when the pandemic hit. Acting on the plan could prevent a second wave of infection.

“The priority for the NHS remains beating the virus, saving lives and keeping everyone safe. The government can show its appreciation for all NHS employees now by approving moves that guarantee staff are paid properly for every hour they’re at work.

“Every Thursday we applaud NHS staff from our doorsteps and show how much we value them. The public will expect the government to reflect this when pay talks open later in the year. People will understandably be horrified at talk of pay freezes for those at the forefront of the fight against the virus.”

RCN national officer and team leader, and acting staff side secretary, Hannah Reed said: “Any discussions about a return to business as usual need to take account of the need for more capacity and tools to restart services like outpatient clinics safely again. All staff need adequate supplies of protective equipment that is fit for purpose.

“Staff must be paid in full for the extra hours worked during the crisis. Any talk of future pay freezes to pay the bill for the pandemic will outrage nursing, health care staff and the public alike.”

Notes to editors:

The final text of the blueprint is here

  • The NHS unions are: British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dental Association, British Dietetic Association, British Orthoptists Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, College of Podiatry, Federation of Clinical Scientists, GMB, HCSA – the hospital doctors’ union, Managers in Partnership, Prison Officers Association, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, Society of Radiographers, UNISON and Unite.
  • Unions have been asking the government to fund a consistent approach to overtime across the whole NHS. They are currently awaiting government sign off on a joint proposal from employers and unions.
  • The 16 unions represent health workers covering the whole of the UK. There may be issues specific to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that can be taken up with the employer/union structures of those administrations.