How hospital staff can pressure the government

| 26th March 2020
Hospital staff can pressure the government to solve supply problems and save lives. The rest of us can help. This article explains how.

We can do this.

Hospital staff can put pressure on the government to solve supply problems and save lives. And the rest of us can help. This article is explains how. It’s about the UK, but much of it applies to the US, and some other countries.

This article is addressed to nurses, clearers, doctors, porters and all other staff – but also, crucially, to family and partners of hospital and health care workers. 

Supply

The supply problems I tackle here are:

How to get staff off crowded tubes and into taxis.

How to get more ventilators and intensive care beds.

How to get more personal protective equipment (PPE).

How to get more cleaners on the job.

How to get more tests.

Collapse

There are several reasons why pressure from health staff will work on this government. The first is that pressure has forced Johnson and company into a massive U-turn to protect lives. Pressure from health staff, both direct and informal, was crucial to that. 

Second, now that the government have begun to respond, they are desperate to make their new measures work. 

Third, what health workers do publicly and on social media will have enormous authority. We love our NHS, and we are deeply grateful to you who work there now. We will follow you.

And pressure is sorely needed. Johnson wants to act. But the whole system is set up to slow down action. Think about the management in your hospital or trust. They were hired and trained to enforce the neoliberal system.

Now they are unsure, nervous and afraid of action. They know the people above them are afraid of both the epidemic and economic collapse. 

Communicating

It is obvious that in this crisis hospital managers have to step outside the normal budget controls, the normal procurement procedures, the normal terror of spending. It is obvious, but they can’t do it. Decades of cuts and paperwork weigh on them.

So we – health workers and everyone else – need to push from below.

One way is for those of us at home to rethink our use of social media, emails and phone calls. Social media is not a frivolous indulgence now. Phones and computers are how we conduct the most important relationships in our lives. 

This is true in hospitals too. In many hospitals now there are no meetings of more than five people. For good reason, there are no union meetings either.

Everyone is communicating to do their jobs on Whatsapp and other groups. This has extraordinary potential for organizing pressure from below.

Transport to work

Let’s start with a scandal we can fix fast. About half the deaths so far are in London. There health staff are still using crowded tubes. That’s an infection cooker. Shame on Sadiq Khan, the Labour major of London, for not fixing that.

Health workers are the most important people to keep uninfected, because they get close to so many sick and vulnerable people. And their skills are crucial – we need them well.

So every hospital worker in London needs to take a car or taxi to and from work. Don’t wait. Take pictures of groups and post them with a caption asking drivers to come at the end of shift.

Maybe the hospital pays taxis, but there are millions of us ready to help for free. If the police or the management complain, ask them to facilitate the lines of cars. 

One friend walked from the rail station to his hospital job in London yesterday. As he did so, cabbies who saw his clothing stopped and offered him a free ride. People are ready.

Some women won’t want to get into cars with strange men. So make a point of asking for women drivers too. Once you start this in one hospital, all the hospitals will be doing it, and the police and the management will help.

PPE and Ventilators

That’s an easy one. Now what about PPE and ventilators? 

Let’s start with what the problem is. Management and the government have had two months warning on the need for PPE and ventilators. They have not even got enough masks.

Again, the neoliberal system was set up to slow things down and cut spending. Johnson said two weeks ago he had talked with many industry executives and urged them to make ventilators.

Today we are told that one company – Dyson – is ready to manufacture 10,000 over the next few months. Germany has 28,000 and is making many more.

There are closed auto plants all over the country. Ventilators are not that hard to make. The regular manufacturers say they will share all the plans. 

The Guardian also says that Dyson have been waiting for the green light from government – maybe it will come today. This is appalling. They are still making contracts. They are still saving money. We need a deluge of pressure.

How to Build Pressure

One way is to tell the world. That A&E doctor on 5 Live who told the truth was important. We need more people speaking out, especially from the worst hit hospitals. Everyone needs to know. 

Hospital staff will have told not to tell people, not to panic the patients’ relatives or disgrace your employer. But we need to know, because that will make the government act.

If you don’t want to go public, tell your mother or your partner. They can tell other people. If the truth comes from a hundred directions, it will get out.

Another way is just more photos on social media like the ones from health that made such an impact saying, Stay Home. But this time, We Need Ventilators Now! And We Need Protective Equipment Now!.

Post from your hospital, demanding to know when the ventilators are being delivered, on what day, who from and how many. And tell them how many you need.

Unions

Plead with the unions on social media, especially Unite and the GMB, the main factory unions. Beg not just the national unions, but the shop stewards, to open the factories and get them moving. 

The government has promised they will buy everything the companies can make. We can make sure they do.  

Union members outside can forward those posts to everyone you know. Call your fellow workers. Hold one small factory occupation with just 12 people and - in the present circumstances - you will be working on ventilators fast.

It can be helpful to use union stewards and other representatives to order kit from outside sources. Put out an order on social media, with a number to call. That representative takes the call. She says, "I will just check with management". Call the relevant manager and ask for authorization now. If the manager says no or delays, post that refusal on social media. 

Break the Budget

It is important to understand inside the hospitals that management on every level is being held back by fear of spending money.

Everyone needs to get over this. In the hospital, tell each other, and any manager, at every opportunity, that we need to spend, spend, spend money because it’s a matter of life and death. The government will have to follow our lead.

Cleaners

This is an infectious disease. Cleaning is essential – all the time, everywhere. Cleaners are as essential as anyone else. But some cleaners will fall sick. Some have sick or vulnerable family members or housemates.

All those cleaners need to be at home on full pay, or they will be tempted to come to work. Many of them are agency or privatized staff with trouble getting home pay.  

We need cleaners posting photos too, and nurses and doctors shouting, We Need More Cleaners Now! 

The bottleneck is paying those cleaners. Again, everyone needs to argue in the hospital, and on social media, pay those people. 

Tests

Finally, tests. Tests first for all hospital workers, and all their families and housemates, so we know who needs isolation for how long.

But tests for everyone else too, so we know who has had it, who needs care, who needs isolation. Lockdowns are a blunt instrument. Test, treat, care, repeat.

Again, demand those tests on social media. Take photos demanding them, and send them on social media to Boris Johnson, the prime minister, or Matt Hancock, the health secretary. Send them to the commanding officer of the local barracks.

Send them to the party that runs the local council. Demand to know where the tests are being made, who is making them, the date they will be delivered.

Post photos asking Chinese hospitals or President XI to send masks and tests. They are sending them to other countries. Even if they do nothing, we can shame Johnson into action. 

We can do this.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a climate activist and writer. He has worked as a hospital porter, an OT technician, an abortion counsellor and an HIV counsellor.

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