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illustration by Javie Huxley @javhux

“It is typical of Conservative governments to ignore both long-term and scientific concerns, but their dithering, lying and demonisation of key workers is unprecedented and is costing lives.”

In conversation with an Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine Consultant

With the UK’s death toll rapidly increasing and NHS healthcare workers speaking out against working conditions and the lack of PPE in hospitals over the UK, it is more important than ever to hear from those putting their lives on the line within the structure of a massively overstretched and underfunded NHS.

We sat down with Sarah*, an Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine Consultant working in the South-East of England to find out more about the context within which she was dealing with COVID-19. While she noted that the South East, where she works, was a few weeks behind other UK COVID-19 hotspots, it was very interesting to learn about her hospital’s organisational upheaval in readiness for the inevitable spike in cases. We talked in depth about the stark and unforgivable failures in the government’s approach to both this pandemic and treatment of the NHS more generally – topics on which Sarah did not mince her words.

illustration by Javie Huxley @javhux

As a consultant, Sarah stopped working nights aged 55 – but, given the extraordinary circumstances, she is now working a 60-hour week with no breaks.

She explains that anesthetists are in the “most vulnerable profession” amongst those on the COVID-19 frontline, due to the close contact with patients and subsequent high exposure to the virus. As such, there has been an understandably high amount of fear and anxiety amongst staff in light of the personal risks they are taking.

“We are very scared about getting ill, particularly since many health workers have been dying of COVID-19 and many of us still do not have adequate protection.”

This fear must only be exacerbated by the consistent misinformation and false promises given to health workers. This continuously inadequate response reflected in the “lack of protective equipment, critical care capacity, testing and tracking, along with the late social distancing,” she explains, is simply “woeful” – and “has exposed cabinet members who are clearly not intellectually equipped for a crisis.”

This is no better illustrated than in yesterday’s testing ‘circus show’. On 24th April, the government said all key workers who suspected they had symptoms of COVID-19 would be able to register for tests from 9am. By 10am, the tests had already run out, leaving thousands of health workers without the reassurance and testing they had been promised.

This might not have come as the greatest shock to her. Exasperated at the government’s ineptitude and their lack of foresight, she says “It is unfathomable that there was no planning in place for this pandemic.”

Not only did we have warnings that this would happen with SARS and MERS, which should have provoked a detailed UK plan for staffing and equipment, but we also had a significant lead time ahead of China and Italy.”

Failure to take heed of scientific warnings, she says, “is typical of Conservative governments… but their dithering, lying and demonisation of key workers is unprecedented and is costing lives.” The very real threat to healthcare workers has resulted in around 100 (exact figure unknown) NHS fatalities – much of which can be attributed to the incorrect early government advice on PPE, which was not in line with the WHO.

Supply has also been completely insufficient, Sarah says. “We are keeping a visor for at least a day and wiping it clean. The non-disposable FFP-3 masks are damaging skin – we are having to wear protective tape to try and avoid pressure necrosis.
Another issue is that disposable masks are fit tested but then the supply changes to a different manufacturer or model and so we start again and there is not time for repeated fit testing in a crisis. We cut corners.”

Sarah also flags the way in which this ‘wear what you can’ attitude to PPE disproportionately affects women. “FFP-3 masks are made for men – the inherent sexism in the provision of PPE means that women are disadvantaged in fit testing as many of the masks are too big. This puts women at greater risk.”

This poor approach to both early warning and PPE is reflective of a bigger problem of underfunding and systemic damaging government policies sustained by Tory leadership. “The NHS has been chronically underfunded and systemically privatised. NHS staff have been abused, demonised and lied to.

As for the government’s public displays of support for healthcare workers, Sarah says simply “Clapping does not cut it. The hypocrisy of the Conservative government shifting their messaging to “NHS Heroes” has been harshly felt by everyone, but particularly by colleagues from EU and non-EU nations earning less than £25,000 per year.”

Sarah airs her displeasure at the inadequacy of the UK’s leadership. “

The government response was disorganised, unprofessional, chaotic. It is not a surprise that the current government did not have the intellect to deal with this but if there was previously any doubt, they have been exposed and should be held to account.”

illustration by Javie Huxley @javhux

It’s no secret that Sarah and other healthcare workers have been inordinately let down, but she vocalises the resilience of healthcare workers across the UK – “the response of NHS staff has been magnificent. They have stepped up and made the enormous organisational change required to meet demand as best they can.

As for the public, and the displays of support they are showing, she urges us to “continue raising money for NHS charities and volunteering.

“This support is much appreciated, although we all wish it were not necessary. This is important to address the short fallings of the current government. “

The most valuable act we can all do to show support of the personal risk and sacrifices healthcare workers are making is to “hold the government to account in the absence of Parliament – write letters to your MP, Health Secretary and Prime Minister.”

*alias used to protect identity

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