I’ve spoken to a number of NHS Scotland staff about conditions in the NHS and the potential for strike action. I’ll present the interview without commentary, providing only the questions and answers in order to let the words speak for themselves.
First up is Margaret Thomson, a domestic assistant at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. Margaret, of course, is not her real name but she has been in NHS for eight years.
Thank you for speaking to me Margaret. My first question is this, what’s the mood in your hospital?
“In a word, stressed. We have heard reports touting the highest-ever NHS staffing levels. But the actual story is a little bit different. The main problem is that, despite claims to the contrary, the NHS does not have enough staff. Doctors are in short supply. There aren’t enough nurses here. There aren’t enough porters. There aren’t enough cleaners. I could go on.
“The reality of the matter is that there is such a strong demand for services that local staff members struggle to even take the breaks we are entitled to or to finish their shifts on time. All over the place, we need extra workers.”
Could you give me an example of your working day?
“I’m on the ward ready to go at 7:30am every morning, rain or shine. Before I start my cleaning, I check with nursing staff to see if any patients have unique circumstances, like an infection, that will impact my cleaning. In the past, I could often have much of the ward cleaned by lunch time but those are what I’d call the good old days.
“Now, and people aren’t aware of this, we still have a number of Covid patients. Cleaning Covid rooms requires me to dress up in very warm PPE, almost like an astronaut, and scrub every inch of the room. At the height of the pandemic I would be cleaning hundreds of Covid patients rooms per week, but it’s different now. We have less staff which means that I struggle to get my work done as I am required to go to other wards to cover other staff that might be off sick or on annual leave. In short, my day is incredibly stressful but not due to Covid, due to a lack of staff.”
What’s your biggest concern about the NHS today?
“Understaffing. Nobody should have any doubt that the only way we can attract and keep the people needed to jump-start a recovery in our hospitals is to value staff better. In particular, the understaffing crisis has been known for years but went unaddressed until COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated the chronic shortfalls in staffing levels. Our threat to strike is the inevitable result of years of austerity and the managed decline of our NHS by political leaders, and the unsustainable pressures this has placed on a workforce on which everyone depends.
“We had loads of extra domestic and portering staff during the pandemic, but the money stopped, and most of them are gone now. This made a difference as more cleaners means rooms on the wards can be made ready for patients quicker which reduces their time in the emergency department. Quicker movement through the emergency department reduces the time ambulance crews need to wait to get their patient into a cubicle in the first place. More porters mean this goes even quicker, not to mention the ability to get medications to wards quicker, allowing people to be discharged quicker. People often forget that more support staff has a domino effect.
“There are more benefits than just getting patients into wards quicker, if we had more cleaning staff rooms would even be cleaner as we could spend longer cleaning them which means that there would be less chance of a patient picking up a bug whilst in hospital and potentially staying longer in hospital, putting more pressure on the health service.”
Why do you want to strike?
“I voted to strike, but I don’t want to do it. My job isn’t as important as a nurse, paramedic, what-have-you, but it’s vital to patient care, and patients can’t get the care they deserve if the people cleaning their rooms or caring for them and giving them their medication are stressed, overworked and tired. Stressed, overworked and tired people miss things or make mistakes. The situation in our hospital is dangerous, and I have the power to do something about it, so I am doing something about it. If that means I have to strike, I will strike. I’m striking for my colleagues and the patients all hospital staff have a part in helping.”
Next Monday in part two our series, The Pulse of the NHS, Ashley Black speaks to Isabelle Heath, a Staff Nurse of five years at the same hospital.
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