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Thu, 9 July 2020

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As lockdown eases, the Government has a duty of care for the mental health of our workers

As lockdown eases, the Government has a duty of care for the mental health of our workers

"It is hard to convey the mental anguish experienced by the paramedics, nurses, ambulance workers and doctors I spoke to who feared that without adequate PPE they were putting patients, their families and themselves at risk," says Ian Byrne MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

The mental health of the nation’s workers and key workers is of growing concern as lockdown starts to ease.

A YouGov survey for IPPR in April found half of the UK’s health workers to be suffering from mental health problems as a result of fighting Covid-19 on the frontline.

Large numbers of healthcare staff were found to be experiencing stress and trauma and Labour said they were being placed in an impossible situation amid a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and rising death rates in care homes.

As MP for Liverpool West Derby, over the last 9 weeks I have been inundated with requests for help in securing vital PPE for key workers who felt at risk at work without adequate protective kit. Despite ongoing assurances by Government that PPE was reaching those who needed it, it wasn’t.

It is hard to convey the mental anguish experienced by the paramedics, nurses, ambulance workers and doctors I spoke to who feared that without adequate PPE they were putting patients, their families and themselves at risk.

A third of nurses rated their mental health as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in April, according to a survey of 3,500 nurses by the Nursing Times. Around 90% reported they were more stressed and anxious at work than usual.

The Government has a duty of care to provide suitable mental health support for all of our key workers.

The IPPR report “Care Fit For Carers”, published in April 2020, stated: “Half of healthcare workers said their mental health had deteriorated since the Covid-19 crisis began. Mental health impact was greatest on younger workers (aged 18 to 34) – where as many as 71% said their mental health had got worse.”

In the same report, 21% of healthcare workers said Covid-19 made them more likely to want to leave the sector. The figure rose to 29% for registered nurses and midwives.

There is currently little data available on the effect of the pandemic on social care workers’ mental health. However, a survey conducted by GMB Scotland in April found four in five carers said their mental health had been damaged by their work. And the strain is being felt in many workplaces.

A survey by Unite the union found earlier this month that workers’ concerns about their mental health had increased dramatically during lockdown.

The union surveyed 22,000 workplace activists and just under two-thirds of respondents said there was an increase in mental health issues among members.

The Government has a duty of care to provide suitable mental health support for all of our key workers. The survey also found that nearly one in five respondents (18%) believed that their employer had acted recklessly, for example in failing to supply PPE. And 14% believed their employer was taking advantage of the crisis, for example by terms and conditions.

Unite is calling for a full public inquiry to understand how and why low-paid workers appear to be at most risk of dying from Covid-19. The union made its call following the Office for National Statistics publication of its finding on Covid-19 deaths by profession in April, which at the time showed the highest number of deaths to have occurred in the social care sector.

Too many key workers have been left underpaid, insecure and ignored. TUC analysis estimates that 3.7 million of our key workers earn less than £10 an hour and that many more face insecure conditions at work, including a quarter of care workers on zero-hours contracts.

And the public sector pay freeze enacted by the coalition Government means that many key workers have experienced huge real-term loss to pay, the true price of over a decade of austerity.

Teachers too are under extreme pressure since the prime minister announced that primary schools should open more widely from 1 June.

Nobody wants to see society locked down for a moment longer than is necessary, but its easing must be safe.

The National Education Union (NEU) does not agree that schools should re-open until the five tests it has set out are met.

I share this view and consider a robust test, track, trace and isolate system – which has underpinned the easing of lockdown and re-opening of schools elsewhere – to be essential.

A safe and managed return to work across all sectors must involve close consultation with unions, giving employers ample time to implement plans and ensure appropriate PPE is available and social distancing measures can be observed.

It is also vital that our transport services are safe for passengers and workers.

As we start to cautiously emerge from lockdown, I believe trade unions have an enormous role to play in all of our futures. Our collective goal must always be to protect life, not profit.

More than 5.5 million workers in Britain are in a trade union. If you’re not, isn’t it time you were? Join a union.

Ian Byrne is Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby

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