Frontline workers say they are “terrified” about the new strain of coronavirus sweeping the UK – and say unsafe workplace conditions are putting them at unnecessary risk of infection.
HuffPost UK spoke with two NHS consultants who work in acute medicine in Wales and are both recovering after contracting Covid-19. They believe insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor safety and hygiene standards have led to as many as 70% of the consultants in their department having caught the virus.
“NHS workers and staff always put patients first, but the trust also has a duty of care to staff and that has been completely neglected,” one said. “We should have the confidence that our organisation is looking after us while we work and ensuring whatever we do is done in a safe way. It’s completely unacceptable for so many of us to come down with this illness – some of them very seriously.”
Staff shortages have meant surfaces and labs in the hospital have not been properly cleaned or disinfected, they claimed. “Normally it would take several people to clean the department, which would include changing rooms, consultation rooms, rooms where patients might need to be ventilated or where people are doing procedures that are exposed to blood and bodily fluids – these are high-risk clinical areas.
“What staff were finding was that they would come into work and overnight the labs hadn’t been cleaned, or the bins hadn’t been emptied. It’s unacceptable for clinical waste not to be chucked out – it just takes a few days for infections to spread.”
“It’s shocking that NHS workers are getting neither the correct protection at work nor the vaccine in a timely fashion.”
In another shocking case just a fortnight ago, one claims they were forced to remove their PPE just metres away from Covid-positive patients because there was no sterile room for them to change.
They added: “We’ve seen a surge in numbers of patients and we’ve had several consultants going off sick at the same time. It’s shocking that NHS workers are getting neither the correct protection at work nor the vaccine in a timely fashion.”
Frontline health and social care workers are in group 2 to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, behind care home residents and their carers.
In response, a spokesperson for the local health board said: “Our staff have been working tirelessly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to care for our patients and to prevent the spread of the virus in our hospitals.
“We know that the virus is extremely contagious. We have strict infection control procedures in place within our hospitals and are taking every possible measure to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. If any staff members have any concerns about infection control then they should raise them through established Health Board procedures so actions can be taken to address them, as they are whenever we become aware of concerns.”
Since the detection of the new mutant strain of coronavirus, large swathes of the east and south-east of England have come under strict tier 4 regulations in an attempt to curb the alarming rise of case numbers – with more to follow on Boxing Day.
As thousands of lorry drivers remain stranded in Kent after fears surrounding the new variant of coronavirus meant France stopped them crossing the Channel, UK supermarkets have issued warnings over shortages of some fresh fruit and vegetables as a result of the disruption.
Will, 17, works for a national supermarket chain in the East Midlands, which is currently under tier 3 restrictions. He has had concerns about his safety since he began his job in August. “When I first started it was kind of strange,” he says. “I thought there would be much more safety measures but there was no one at the door and everyone was being let in.”
As a student and key worker, he is in contact with a lot of people each day and is “extremely concerned” about the new variant of coronavirus. “I am really worried about this new strain,” he said. “It’s much more infectious and I’m in places with a lot of people who don’t often distance. If one person gets it there’s likely to be a massive outbreak because of the high transmission rate.
“I absolutely feel more worried about working in a supermarket, especially as no extra measures have been introduced to try and prevent this extra spread. I do the discounting in the evening, and customers will get way too close to me, leaning over me. I’ve had to tell customers to please keep a distance.”
He says management at his workplace can be “very funny” about employees ringing in sick or awaiting test results, and claims staff were told to turn off the NHS Covid-19 app after a large outbreak at work meant many had to self-isolate.
In the last few days, his supermarket has been “crazy” with Christmas shoppers and buyers panicked by fears of empty shelves as a result of the travel ban. “More people in supermarkets is making me more concerned about the new strain, and I can’t afford to take time off work.”
On Saturday, Boris Johnson stood in front of the nation and claimed the new coronavirus variant had forced the government to backtrack on plans to relax Covid-19 restrictions over the holiday period, effectively cancelling Christmas for millions.
Teaching assistant Donna Spicer, 48, admits she has been feeling “a bit down” after learning she can no longer celebrate December 25 as she had originally planned with her 86-year-old nan, who lives alone with dementia. “It could be her last ever Christmas,” she worries.
Alongside ruined holiday plans are her growing fears regarding the new variant of coronavirus which has been spreading like wildfire in Greenwich.
Scientists have suggested the new strain could more easily infect children than other variants, although that analysis is still ongoing. Cases among kids are thought to be largely asymptomatic – meaning they don’t show signs of illness but can still carry the virus and spread it around.
Donna is terrified she’ll catch coronavirus from one of the hundreds of children she bumps into in the corridor each day. “It’s not possible to socially distance in school,” she says. “There should be a one-way system throughout the school and kids should be made to walk apart. Instead, there are literally crowds of children walking and running in tight spaces, touching and chatting with each other.
“It’s not safe for staff. And with this strain being 70% more transmissible, I’ll be looking at all the kids wondering if they’ve got it, instead of concentrating on the job I’m there to do.”
As a support staff member at a primary and secondary school, she may be required to work in different classrooms with different year groups in one single day. “At the beginning, everything was strict. But now staff are being asked to self-isolate so we’re being asked to do cover – when actually we shouldn’t be crossing bubbles.
“We’re not even allowed to wear face masks in the actual classrooms because the kids need to be able to see and hear us properly. For a teacher sitting at a desk at the front, that’s fine. But if you’re a teaching assistant moving around the classroom going to individual children, then that puts you at even greater risk.”
Many of her colleagues live with clinically vulnerable family members and Donna believes the appalling lack of safety measures, as well as the government’s refusal to close schools early for Christmas, has forced them to put their lives at risk.
“The government bangs on about the mental health of pupils, but what about the mental and physical health of staff? We’re having to go in and put ourselves at risk on a daily basis, to have our worries ignored and told that the children are way more important than us. It’s not OK.
“The schools are failing their staff and this isn’t just happening in my borough. This is happening to schools across the board.”
HuffPost UK put these claims to Greenwich Council, which oversees local schools.
Leader Cllr Danny Thorpe, whose local authority was one of three to issue instructions to schools to shut early before Christmas, praised teachers and school staff as “unsung heroes of this pandemic”. The government threatened to sue Greenwich if it didn’t reverse its order.
He admitted: “The week before the end of term we had 362 staff self-isolating – that’s one of the reasons why I wanted our schools to close early.”
Thorpe added: “As a former teacher I understand how tough the job can be at the best of times. I’m in regular contact with headteachers and know they are doing everything they can to keep pupils and staff safe.
“But with cases still rising, it’s inevitable that even more staff will have to self isolate and this will cause even more issues for schools to deal with.
“Over the past week, our team has been working flat out to develop a testing strategy for our schools. It is incredibly frustrating that we still don’t have a clear plan from the government.”
“I’ll be looking at all the kids wondering if they’ve got it, instead of concentrating on the job I’m there to do.”
With schools reopening and mass testing expected to take place in all secondaries from January 4, Donna is dreading returning to work. “All the primary schools are being told to open in January and now they’re saying school kids can easily pick this new strain up. I’m not at all looking forward to going back to work in the new year – it’s just too much.
“They need to close schools for everyone – except vulnerable kids and the children of key workers – and move to either blended learning or online-only learning. Boris needs to pull his frickin’ finger out and stop leaving everybody hanging over an anxiety cliff, because that’s what everyone in schools is doing.
“We’re all stood at the cliff edge wondering who is going to be the next one to catch Covid.”
In October, HuffPost UK revealed London bus drivers had been under pressure by bosses to breach Covid-19 regulations by allowing passengers to pack on, months after they had voiced fears about the lack of protective gear provided to them. Dozens of London bus drivers have died after testing positive for Covid-19 this year.
James Rossi, 43, has worked as a London bus driver for 10 years; he currently drives the 340 route from Harrow to Edgware. “I enjoy my job but it’s been a lot harder and more stressful this year,” he says.
According to James, it was not until September that adequate protections and measures were finally introduced at work. “Before that, bus drivers were bringing in clingfilm to cover the holes in the door and the cash tray,” he claimed. “We were bringing in our own antibacterial hand sanitiser, our own masks – nothing was supplied. It wasn’t until just after the kids went back to school that the bus cabs were properly secured.” HuffPost UK has reached out to TfL and the bus operator for comment.
Still, despite the masks and hand sanitiser now available in the garages, he believes more should be done. Ensuring passengers maintain social distancing and wear masks is a near-impossible task and, at times, a dangerous one.
“There are a lot of good passengers but there’s a percentage who think they’re above the law, that they don’t have to follow any of the rules and can do whatever they want. I’ve had passengers throw stuff at me and hang off the side of the bus.”
“If we were animals, we’d get better treatment than this.”
Just five weeks ago, a young man spat in his direction after being told he wasn’t allowed to travel without a mask or ticket. Luckily, it was behind the so-called “assault screen” that separated the two men. But he says a colleague of his was “absolutely covered in spit” after a passenger managed to wedge himself through a gap in the door.
“We need more [Covid-19 wardens] on buses and major stations handing out fines to people not wearing masks, because a lot of passengers don’t wear a mask or they take it off the minute after they get on the bus.”
James himself fell sick back in March, recovering only after three weeks of “complete exhaustion, like every part of me had been beaten up and run over”. As a result, he feels less at risk – although there is increasing evidence that people are being re-infected with Covid-19 – but worries for the safety of his colleagues as the new variant tears across London.
Just recently, the toilet facilities at a bus garage were closed off after a single toilet was blocked. It wasn’t until James complained that they were opened up again, but for two weeks both male and female drivers had been unable to wash their hands. “It was really simple: we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” he says. “We need to wash our hands after holding a dirty steering wheel on a bus for five hours or before we eat.
“If we were animals, we’d get better treatment than this. You need to give livestock proper facilities and a safe place to rest and eat, otherwise the RSPCA would come in and take the animal away and prosecute you. But if you’re a bus driver then it’s perfectly fine.”