There is alarm amongst many about the lack of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] being provided to workers at risk of exposure to Covid-19. Rightly so.
The information regarding protection has been confusing, with different recommendations initially coming from the World Health organisation (WHO) and Public Health England (PHE). Workers in the frontline are being told what to do rather than being involved in the decisions that affect them. We don’t trust our bosses to protect us. Many workers are superseding recommended protection with support of trade unions. For example in my workplace, an ambulance service, the union is advising members to enforce the wearing of level 2 PPE, face masks, googles, gloves, and aprons, for every close contact, because of workers’ experiences of pre-symptomatic or atypical-symptomatic patients testing positive.
In the London Ambulance Service the Unison branch is demanding level 3 PPE, which includes mechanical respirators, for every patient contact, arguing that the highest protection should be adopted unless it’s proved not to be needed.
At the same time many workers in high risk situations, often the less well organised, have no PPE at all. Home carers are in a particularly vulnerable situation, with many on zero hours and low union density.
The WHO admits that “the current global stockpile of PPE is insufficient, particularly for medical masks and respirators; the supply of gowns and goggles is soon expected to be insufficient also”.
Official recommendations are based as much on available resources as on the, inevitably small, evidence base. The WHO goes on to argue that: “The capacity to expand PPE production is limited”.
But with political will production can increase vastly. The problem is that currently the production and distribution lie in the hands of the market. In the UK, the fault lines created by Blair’s privatisation of NHS supplies are exposed. We want to see factories requisitioned to increase production and workers devising plans for socially useful production such as PPE.
Immediately we need to agree and enforce levels of PPE for all, through discussion amongst workers and through organising at workplace level and reaching out with solidarity to less unionised workers.