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How well are NHS staff, volunteers and immigration staff prepared for the coronavirus pandemic?

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

As coronavirus is spreading across the globe, the strain under which the NHS has to function is increasing too. The government has previously called back to work NHS retired staff so as to relieve pressure on an NHS workforce that is due to be overwhelming in the next couple of weeks. Many expressed concern as to the risk of contracting the disease at the workplace as they are in the risk group due to their age. However, more than 11,000 former NHS staff have responded and rejoined the health service to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The UK government has also called for the help of 250,000 of volunteers to help the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis and more than 750,000 people have signed up. The "recruitment" paused on 29th March 2020 as the NHS has been overwhelmed with the volunteers and more information will be released in the next few weeks for the interested candidates on how to get involved. England's children commissioner has also called for volunteer social workers in the beginning of April 2020.

However, over the past few days the UK has been criticised for not testing enough of its population for coronavirus. By 1st April 2020 only 2,000 of the NHS's 500,000 frontline staff had been tested. Testing is needed to diagnose those who are infected with coronavirus as self-isolation of NHS staff and key workers especially without the confirmation that they are infected with coronavirus is unreasonable and creates a shortage of medical staff within the healthcare system.

Testing can also reveal those who have had the virus but have not displayed any symptoms-an antibody test that looks for the signs of immunity in the blood. However, the coronavirus test is still unavailable for general population and is used in hospitals for those already "not feeling well".

Testing would enable us to understand the spread of coronavirus in the population and deal with it more efficiently. While we are lagging behind South Korea and other European countries in testing, we remain unaware who from the frontline staff is infected and would therefore present a risk to patients and others around.

The NHS Nightingale Hospital, which has been set up in the ExCel centre in London, is a temporary coronavirus treatment hospital and is aimed at those in need of intensive care but who have the best chance of survival. It will treat younger patients infected with coronavirus who have no underlying health conditions.The volunteers there face a very difficult task as a mortality rate of those on ventilators is 50-80%. In addition, there is already a shortage of doctors due to a lack of coronavirus testing for the NHS staff but also due to thousands of self-isolating after displaying the symptoms of coronavirus.

I have previously written an extensive article regarding COVID-19 and it can be accessed here: but today I would like to concentrate on some other issues such as a lack of personal protective equipment for the healthcare professionals in the UK and in light of this how safe volunteering in healthcare settings at the outbreak of COVID-19 really is.

Apart from contracting the coronavirus from the infected person, humans can also contract it upon touching contaminated surfaces. Coronavirus remains infectious in airborne droplets for 3 hours, up to 72 hours on hard, shiny surfaces and up to 24 hours on porous surfaces and cardboard. That is why it is extremely important to wash your hands, use sanitiser and completely change clothing once you get back home from outside to avoid catching the virus and bringing it home. Social distancing along with minimising contacts with others lowers the risk of contracting coronavirus from another person.

When you are constantly dealing with patients infected with the coronavirus, there is a large concentration of virus in the surroundings and therefore medical staff has to be equipped to protect themselves from contracting the virus and spreading it. PPE/personal protective equipment such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles,face shields, gowns and aprons are needed by healthcare workers and any shortage of PPE is life threatening to staff and the risk of spreading the virus to others is high.

The government has published a guidance and made a video that outlines infection control for healthcare providers assessing possible cases of COVID-19:

Prices for PPE have surged since the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, surgical masks have experienced a sixfold increase, gowns have doubled and N95 respirators have trebled. Market manipulation is widespread, with stocks being sold to the highest bidder. This is the sad truth.

UK medical staff have been trying to raise the concerns regarding the lack of PPE, however, there have been threats from the management in response to that. For example, some staff at Southend hospital in Essex have been warned of facing disciplinary action if they raise the issue of PPE shortage publicly. But it is not only the staff that has to be wearing the PPE but there should also be measures in place to avoid the spread of coronavirus within the hospital itself.

We have been lucky in a sense that we have had time to see what measures China has taken to deal with the spread of coronavirus on their land, how South Korea and Russia disinfect its streets on a daily basis in addition to the coronavirus experience of Italy and Spain from which we should learn. However, I am yet to see any trucks driving along the UK streets disinfecting them.

Obviously we are not quick enough to learn from other countries about what is approaching our country. For instance, in Cotugno Hospital in Naples, Italy, serious measures are taken to avoid coronavirus spread:

Over the last few days there have been reports of NHS staff dying as a result of contracting the coronavirus as well as reports of patients dying from COVID-19 after being admitted to the hospital for non-coronavirus reasons and later catching it there. How safe are we now in our hospitals when there is a lack of PPE for the medical staff and where patients admitted for non-COVID-19 reasons pass away after contracting COVID-19 inside the hospital? How safe are those people who have signed up for volunteering for the NHS in coronavirus settings in light of this?

If no proper PPE is provided for those on frontline who are healthcare professionals, will the volunteers be provided with the appropriate gear to protect themselves and prevent the spread of coronavirus outside the hospital? Unless serious measures are taken to protect the medical staff and volunteers, the death toll will be rising but not only for the coronavirus patients but also for NHS staff and volunteers.

Our healthcare system including supporting staff has been neglected for years.The average support worker hourly pay in the UK is £8.15 and this staff are still working in healthcare facilities today looking after the disabled and elderly and therefore being exposed to a high risk of contracting a COVID-19 themselves.

Is it ethical to ask people to carry on with their medical and healthcare jobs and place people to volunteer in coronavirus hospitals if you know that you are unable to provide them with the basic protective equipment and in essence you are sending them to a highly dangerous setting with an increasingly high risk of contracting coronavirus and dying from it?

What about immigration in this context?

19 NHS staff have died since the coronavirus outbreak, how many remain infected is not clear yet. As we all know the NHS is heavily reliant on overseas staff.  5.5% of all NHS staff is EU nationals and it is 65,000 NHS staff. 13.1% of NHS staff say that they are not British.

These “non-British foreign workers” put their lives at risk every day for whatever the nationality of their patient is because for them what matters is to save your life.

Prison and immigration staff are being put at risk too. They have no PPE and yet they are sent to detention centres and prisons to move foreign nationals to other centres. This involves close contact while handcuffing and manhandling and all of this is carried out with no PPE. Violent prisoners often refuse to move and spit on staff which of course puts staff at an extremely high level of contracting COVID-19. 

It is time for all of us to unite. 

It is time for the government to learn the lessons from other countries and take swift action until it is not too late.

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