Speech by Dr Jackie Applebee, Chair of Doctors in Unite to the BMA Annual Representative Meeting, 15 September 2020

Dr Applebee proposed the motion by TOWER HAMLETS DIVISION of the BMA: That this meeting, in response to COVID 19, demands that government:

i) ensure that workers are not under pressure to attend work either for financial or workforce reasons while they are unwell or self-isolating and at risk of inadvertently passing on the disease;

ii) provide the equivalent of day-one statutory sick pay to those on zero hours contracts;

iii) allow the NHS to requisition private health care facilities to accommodate effective COVID-19 treatment and quarantine provision if needed;

iv) ensure workers are paid in full while they are unwell or self-isolating.

With respect to point iii)

The COVID 19 pandemic has surely blown the myth that private is good and public is bad.

We have heard repeatedly today how the NHS has stepped up to the plate to deal with the crisis, though years of an unprecedented funding squeeze has led to the collateral damage that Chaand (Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of BMA) referred to earlier of  those whose other health needs could not be met due to the lack of slack in the system.

On the other hand outsourcing to the likes of Deloitte and Serco has led not to the world beating test trace isolate and support system trumpeted by Boris Johnson, but a wholesale fiasco where people are having to drive miles to get a COVID test and where, despite the billions spent, the global multinationals cannot do as well with contact tracing as the very poor relation that are local public health departments.

Private hospitals were handed hundreds of millions back in March to increase capacity to deal with COVID 19 but they were largely unused, gifting a nice windfall to their shareholders at a time when their usual work had all but dried up.

Now they are likely to commissioned to help with the backlog of NHS care. Don’t get me wrong the backlog needs to be cleared, patients need their treatment, but the private sector should not be able to profit from this. They should be brought into the NHS family and their activity now should be offset against the money they were given in March. There must be value for public money spent.

The fact that the NHS had to shut down everything except dealing with COVID in March is a stark illustration of the chronic underfunding and that there has to be spare capacity inbuilt into the system to deal with crises. The extra money thrown at the system should have been thrown at the NHS not the private sector.

With respect to points i), ii) and iv):

If we are going to crush COVID, really get on top of it, we need people to be able to afford to stay at home and isolate if they are in contact with an index case. If there is enough money in the economy to subsidise eating out there is surely enough to guarantee that if someone is in quarantine that they are paid in full.

Many of the lowest paid, for example cleaners, refuse collectors and care workers, many of whom have looked after patients with COVID, often of precarious zero hours contracts, cannot work from home, and to make ends meet many of them have two jobs. They need to be reassured that they wont’ lose out financially if they stay off work otherwise they will have no choice but to go in and the virus will continue to spread.

Covid is with us but Government could do so much more to minimise it’s devastating impact.

The pandemic has surely underlined the huge value of publicly funded, publicly provided health service which is free at the point of delivery and the demonstrated the dedication of the staff who work within the NHS and Social Care.

As has been said today already, we have an opportunity to reshape the future, it’s up to us whether we grasp the nettle.

Please support this motion in all it’s parts.

The Motion was passed with overwhelming support from delegates

COVID-19: Response from Doctors in Unite

The threat posed by COVID-19 demands a united national response across the UK. As well as protecting individual and public health, the burden of maintaining public resilience must be shared equally, on a pooled basis across society.

In response to COVID-19, Doctors in Unite urges the government to:

  • Extend day-one sick pay to those on zero hours contracts, in the ‘gig-economy’ and to the self-employed.
  • Ensure that workers are not under pressure to attend work while they are unwell and may inadvertently pass on the disease, both financially and in regards to staffing.
  • Allow the NHS to requisite private health care facilities to accommodate effective COVID-19 treatment and quarantine provision if needed.

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady has said:

“Employers have a duty of care to support workers affected by coronavirus. No one should have to worry about making ends meet if they have to self-isolate or if they fall ill. They should be able to focus on getting better.”

The government issued a statement on 4th March, explaining that statutory sick pay (SSP) would be available from day one, and that “there is a range of support in place for those who do not receive Statutory Sick Pay, including Universal Credit and contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

This solution is not sufficient for the three million people in the UK on self-employment contracts plus the two million workers who do not earn enough (£94.25 per week) to claim SSP. In order to claim, these workers would need to enrol for Universal Credit which can take up to five weeks for payment. The alternative is ESA which requires claimants to have built up two to three years of National Insurance contributions.

Doctors in Unite endorses the position adopted by the Socialist Health Association which strongly supports the TUC, and urges that this scheme is extended to those workers who currently do not qualify for SSP.

Employers should make up SSP to the average pay of workers to ensure they are under absolutely no financial pressure to attend work while they are unwell and may inadvertently pass on the disease. This must apply not only when patients are ill but also when people are laid off work for public health reasons, even if they themselves are not actually unwell. 

This is an area where the government must step in, as many sectors (e.g. retail, hospitality, or care providers) which interact most with the public may not have the financial resilience to weather the storm created by COVID-19.

Should the coronavirus outbreak spread significantly everyone will be expected to respond by putting the interests of the community first. Undoubtedly workers will volunteer long hours and take on exceptional responsibilities. This will increase the risk of errors, which will need to be balanced against the risk of failure to treat patients in a mass outbreak. We urge professional bodies to be aware of this.

Our NHS must be in a position to requisition private health care facilities where it will increase local health capacity or facilitate quarantine provision.

As the trade union for medical doctors, Doctors in Unite congratulates our colleague trade unions and Labour leaders for engaging with the government and employers, to ensure that these steps are taken as a matter of urgency in the national interest.