Why all NHS staff need their own care covenant – Dame Diana Johnson

SINCE 2000, when the British Army published Soldiering – the Military Covenant, successive UK governments have been developing the Armed Forces Covenant.

A Clap for Carers celebration outside Leeds General Infirmary during the Covid lockdown.

This aims to give armed forces personnel who we ask to risk their lives for our country an expectation of being properly equipped and trained for their job and, along with their families, fairly treated in their access to various public services.

Although originally not enshrined in law, the Military Covenant raised the profile of the needs of our armed forces, veterans and their families, resulting in much good practice around the country. The recent Queen’s Speech announced that the Armed Forces Covenant will be made law, along with a new Police Covenant.

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Over the past 18 months, the British public have not only appreciated afresh the value of our National Health Service as the world’s most efficient healthcare system, but also expressed gratitude for the commitment to public service, community and country from frontline NHS and social care staff, and those in allied ‘blue light’ and first responder services.

Dame Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North.

Although millions of other workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors do vital work, we have been reminded that our NHS and emergency services workforce are more than key workers. They have been on the frontline of combating Covid-19 and rolling out the vaccine, often shoulder to shoulder with our armed forces and a legion of volunteers.

Their jobs largely cannot be done from home. As with the armed forces, our NHS and emergency services workforce are central to our national security, to the functioning of our economy and to our way of life.

Without their dedication, many thousands more lives would have been lost – beyond nearly 128,000 who have sadly died from Covid-19 to date.

Never again should these workers face the prospect of needlessly putting their own health – even their lives – at risk in the course of doing their jobs, due to failings in areas like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or testing. More broadly, neither should they have worries about issues such as food or childcare.

Members of the fire brigade, construction workers and members of the public, clapping outside the Nightingale Hospital at the Harrogate Convention Centre in Harrogate, to salute local heroes during a nationwide Clap for Carers NHS initiative to applaud NHS workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Through existing laws there are obligations to enforce health and safety laws for employees, but I would argue that there is an additional moral duty in ensuring that key NHS and social care workers can do their jobs without fear. Clearly the current law has failed to do this. 

By December 2020, nine months into the pandemic, 850 had died from Covid whilst working in the NHS or social care. The words used in Remembrance services come to mind – for our today they gave their tomorrow. Many more feel the lasting physical and mental health effects of an exhausting and traumatic 18 months.

I, therefore, propose that, as soon as practical, the Government institutes a National Health Service, Social Care and Emergency Services Covenant on similar lines to the Armed Forces Covenant, enshrined in law and fully funded.

While it is for trade unions to continue leading in bargaining for the pay, terms and conditions of these workers, ensuring basic safety at work should not be goals that trade unions or Parliamentarians need to campaign or bargain for. It should be guaranteed.

The ‘clap your NHS’ initiative, ideas on awarding honours, medals, badges, having memorials and a minute’s silence have all been welcome. Improved pay, bonuses, a compensation scheme and writing off healthcare student debt have also been constructive suggestions for recognising these workers. They certainly deserve more than a real-terms pay cut.

However, none of these suggestions is as fundamental as setting and enforcing decent standards of safety for NHS workers across the UK – with devolved administrations encouraged to support this initiative.

A legally enforceable Covenant as a mechanism for guaranteeing safe standards would send these workers a message that they can do their jobs in confidence – never in fear.

I appreciate that issues such as NHS structures and national self-sufficiency in certain supplies would have to be addressed in laying the foundations for this Covenant. But putting these standards in place in advance of the conclusions of the Covid public inquiry, which does not start until 2022, and hopefully many years before any future pandemic, is surely reasonable after all that has been achieved and sacrificed recently.

Dame Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North.

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