How a rank and file movement grew out of the PPE chaos

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Socialist Review spoke to leading union activist Karen Reissmann about how the People Before Profit Covid Activist Group lead the fight in the NHS

SR: When did you start to realise that things were becoming dangerous?
Karen Reissmann: Even before lockdown we began to realise that hospitals were filling with people with Covid-19, and that health workers were expected to work with people with the infection. From the beginning, we knew the right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was not available. People were being asked to work in circumstances where they didn’t feel safe. There was a real disquiet about that, a real sense of unease particularly when the people we were caring for actually started dying and health workers started catching it and dying themselves.
Over the course of March and April people got angrier and angrier about being asked to do things that they knew to be hazardous to their health, potentially lethal in fact. This was especially true when it became clear that so many of the health workers who died were people of colour. There was a strong anti-racist sentiment, made sharper after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests which many of us joined.
My Unison branch proudly initiated some of our local BLM socially-distanced protests. In terms of Covid, the unions at first were quite good. They supplied information about what the rules were and what should be expected of us. But they really limited themselves to that. They told us what Public Health England (PHE) was saying, told us this is what you should have, how you complain if you haven’t got what you’re entitled to and how you escalate it. But beyond that, there was very little from the unions. They were not really being clear — or principled — about you have a right to work in safety. They weren’t strong on advising us that we had a right to refuse to work in these conditions if we felt exposed.
People were coming in on shifts and saying but I haven’t got the right masks and so on. Lots of disquiet, unease about working in dangerous conditions and the union did not give adequate voice to those feelings. As a result, grass-roots meetings began, on-line meetings organised by health workers because the unions weren’t doing that. We began to openly debate whether the PHE information and advice was right. It clearly wasn’t protecting people and we weren’t confident in it. People began to feel it was more driven by what PHE had available rather than what was actually needed.
SR: How did you start to vocalise this disquiet?
KR: Some local managers were very good, making demands and highlighting what was needed. I remember one Director of Nursing saying she’d spoken to Matt Hancock telling him that in one hour we’re going to run out of PPE. She told him, “I need you to tell me that this is going to arrive — we’ve got people who are caring for people who need that PPE”. Very quickly it became clear that things were not right. Of course, in the circumstances of lockdown it was very difficult to know what to do about it. What the grass-roots organisation People Before Profit Covid Activist Group began to do was to use links that we already had, that had been built up over years working in the service and in the unions, to begin to find a way of opposing this.
We wanted to find collective ways of opposing this. Health and Safety Law is all about individual rights and individualised ways of staying safe. We needed to find collective ways of staying safe, ways that meant all health workers could be protected. It was obvious that despite the claps on Thursdays happening every week, even though we had the whole country saying they valued what we were doing and supported us, there was not a full realisation that we were putting our lives at risk everyday in the course of our duties. Working in the health service has always been difficult, we’ve always had to work really hard for relatively low pay, especially given the time health workers have to put in to develop their skills and keep them up to date, the expertise we have to develop and maintain. Still, we’ve never been in a position where there’s a serious risk of us dying simply by doing our job, simply because we’ve not been provided with the right equipment.
There were all sorts of terrible stories, getting orders of gowns that looked like they were made out of J-Cloth material, all a size small so that you had to wear one at the front and one at the back held together with tape. People were saying they didn’t have a break, they limited themselves to taking the PPE off once a day because once it’s off it can’t be used again. We didn’t have enough PPE to use two lots in a shift because then the next shift wouldn’t have anything. Literally, people were not going to the loo or drinking so as not to have to remove — and use up — PPE. On that basis, we started to visit the clap events. We carried posters and held demonstrations — small, socially-distanced demos — but we did break the rule about not being able to protest.
That was a major moment. Suddenly, people at home, many of whom had the belief that many held at the beginning of the lockdown, this idea that the government was doing it’s best, started to realise things were not right. They could see through our public demonstrations that things were bad in the hospitals. And, of course, in hospitals, we were a million times better off than they were in care homes. The idea of standing with placards and banners was scary in lock down but important. We went to North Manchester Hospital and the management were very unhappy about us being there, but we did it anyway. We did some drive-by protests and we filmed these events and put them out on social media and elsewhere.
This was important. It let other health workers know that you could effectively protest the conditions we were being forced to work in. We were happy about the clapping events — by the public, not the hypocritical ones by Johnson and the Tories — but we wanted the right to have people show their support in that way while we protested and exposed the truth about the conditions we were being forced to work in.
SR: How did you get the word around to other activists?
KR: We used lots of informal networks around hospitals across the UK, people who’d got to know each other over years of working in the service and in health unions, and then expanded this through the national on-line People Before Profit meetings. It all encouraged people to have a go and try and do — and change — things. The more people did the more evidence we had that showed when we tried something, we got a good response. We recognised that we’re all knackered, doing really long shifts, some people were living in hotels, not living with their families because they didn’t want to take it back — we knew we were making massive sacrifices while the government couldn’t even be bothered to get the right equipment for us.
There was a real sense of frustration that our concerns were not being taken seriously. There was a clear understanding after a relatively short time, amongst health workers, that what we were getting was not what was needed but what was available. It wasn’t a scientific analysis of need, it was an analysis of what they’ve got in the cupboard!
SR: Where were the first demonstrations?
KR: It was St Thomas’ in London and us in North Manchester. St Thomas’s held protests very early on based on staff who worked in the intensive care unit who suddenly found that because of the huge and very rapid increase in demand they had gone from nursing people one-toone to nursing people one-to-four. They had people who weren’t qualified ICU workers who were working under their direction, just a complete change in their conditions and the intensity of their work. St Thomas’ had their Londonbased networks, around the UNITE union membership. Then there was the people who we knew through political activism in Unison, who were on the left. It was literally just ringing people and asking what they were doing and telling them — and often showing them with pictures and videos — what we’d done successfully. We set up Whatsapp groups, held on-line meetings, reassuring people that if they tried something it would be fine. People were angry, but also very nervous about trying things, about expressing their anger in collective ways. When people saw that it could be done and worked, that led to more widespread protests.
When people saw health workers protesting it really legitimised our issues. We were really careful about how we did it — didn’t use public transport, socially distanced, we wore masks and so on — we weren’t attempting to break any rules. Despite that, we were stopped a couple of times. The management called the police on us twice at North Manchester, so we told them we were simply going for our regular walk. It was interesting because the police were divided. Some of them were saying we’re behind you, we agree with you.
On some protests, if there was one officer being more aggressive, another would reassure us that our protests wouldn’t be broken up and that they supported us. There was a sense that they also felt that they too had been thrown in at the deep end, that there was no PPE for them in the jobs that they were doing. Also, more generally, many of the rank and file police clearly believe that as a result of austerity their jobs have also been downgraded, there have job cuts, a process of deskilling and so on such that they are able to relate to what we’re going through.
SR: What was the support of the national unions and Labour Party like?
KR: Some local Labour Party members were very good and fully supported us. In terms of the party nationally, I think after the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn that wing of the party has been left a bit beaten and silenced. There was none of the vocalisation of support for us from the national party in ways that there had been before when Corbyn was leader. When Keir Starmer came in it was completely shocking that the first thing he started to talk about was getting schools back, getting people back in work, completely supporting the Tory agenda. In hospitals we thought do you not realise what we’re dealing with? Do you not realise the hospitals are full and how widespread and deep-rooted this crisis is?
There was a sense that there was no opposition from Labour, and that’s still the case. There’s no clear articulation of how desperate people feel and how they’ve suffered over the last seven months. I don’t think there’s an understanding by the political class just how deep this pandemic has cut. Even for those of us who perhaps haven’t been working directly with Covid-19 patients, we know that as a result of the pandemic health and social care across the board is not being done properly. We know people are being missed, people are becoming seriously ill and dying because we can’t do the rest of health care.
Now that so many resources have gone to Covid-related cases, everything else has had to be cut. We’ve got queues of people who we can’t care for. Its souldestroying, heart-sinking for us if the second wave deepens. Something fundamental needs to change if we’re going to address this.