Defending the frontline: protecting nurses, protecting patients

Phil Ní Sheaghda. Credit: Lisa Moyles/INMO.

The pandemic has stretched and stressed our already under-resourced healthcare system. Eoghan Gardiner talks to Phil Ní Sheaghda to learn about how the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation is fighting to protect the workers at the frontline.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) represents upwards of thirty thousand nurses and midwives who are working on the frontline against COVID-19. 

Frontline workers have received a wide level of support from the general public for their role in combating the virus. However, the response from the Government has been “disappointing”, according to INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha, in a recent interview with LookLeft. 

“We cannot ever again let our health services and the funding of it run down to the state that it has been.”

Ní Sheaghdha said that this crisis has indeed been ‘very difficult’ for nurses, explaining how the coronavirus has changed up parts of their job. “It requires them to provide nursing care to their patients while wearing PPE (personal protective equipment), which cuts down a lot of your communication.” 

“A lot of our job involves nonverbal communication but that’s been very difficult. Also, the service has been divided in two. So you have services for COVID and non-COVID patients. That requires a lot more staff, and they just aren’t there.” 

Recruiting more nurses than what we’ve got at the moment is key to running an effective healthcare system, says Ní Sheaghdha. 

“From our perspective, what we’ve been looking to the Government to do is to ensure that they do as much as we can to recruit more right now into the system.” She also wants the Government to give a “very clean, clear assurance that an embargo on nursing and midwifery will not be introduced regardless of the state finances at the end of this year.” 

Ní Sheaghdha expressed her disappointment with the outsourcing of the ‘Ireland’s call’ initiative, a campaign that has seen tens of thousands of unemployed healthcare workers register for the frontlines with the HSE. 

The Irish Daily Mail revealed that applicants to the initiative were being employed on three month contracts by CPL resources, a private outsourcing agency, with less employment rights than their directly-employed colleagues.

“We believe that if you’re working in a pandemic, you have the right to be directly hired and have all that goes with a directly hired job.”

She also criticised the Government for ignoring the concerns of healthcare workers surrounding PPE. 

“The infection rate among health care workers is steadily growing, and they’re at a point now where [the Irish rates] are the highest in Europe. 32% of all COVID cases in Ireland among health care workers. We started asking questions of the Government at the very early stages when we saw these figures because we were concerned. We’ve asked a series of questions and we still haven’t got answers and we’re very disappointed with that.” 

“To find out if people are properly protected, you need to know how they are getting infected. So we know, for example, that some have contracted the virus at work. That needs to be examined because if it is an issue that the PPE that they’re supplied with isn’t sufficient, well, then we have to correct that. We don’t know that that is the case, but we don’t know that it isn’t either because we haven’t got the information we need.” The INMO has written to the Minister for Health requesting an independent inquiry into this, “because right now the number of healthcare workers that are infected are alarmingly high, well over seven and a half thousand.” 

“We need to be able to reassure our members that they are not at risk when they’re wearing PPE, and that the PPE that’s provided to them has been quality tested to ensure it provides the relevant and necessary protection. In order to do that we need the detailed statistics that we have sought.” 

Phil Ní Sheaghda with members of the INMO. Credit: Lisa Moyles/INMO.

Pictures of healthcare workers bruised from wearing PPE over long-periods of time have sprung up on social media recently. This, coupled with the increase of infection rates as a result of fatigue, concerns Ní Sheaghdha. 

“We need to have a formal system whereby nurses and midwives can get periods of time, in addition to their normal time away. They have to have a formalized system of having a reprieve from this type of work.” 

The issue of childcare has also been amplified by COVID-19. 

“Childcare has to be addressed. It is absolutely disgraceful that up to today, we still don’t have a system to provide suitable childcare for nurses and midwives. We need them to go to work. They’re experts at what they do and their expertise is needed now more than ever, and the Government hasn’t put any plan in place that actually meets their needs.” 

There are a number of messages in public health that we need to take away moving forward, says Ní Sheaghdha, citing that we must “learn a real lesson” from privatisation of care of the elderly. 

“We cannot ever again let our health services and the funding of it run down to the state that it has been. We have to ensure we learn a real lesson from the privatization and the outsourcing of care of the older person. It is now 82% private providers and we saw what happened as a result. We have to provide care of the older person services in the public sector.”