End Evil

Privatised Cleaning in the NHS

Unison today reported that the result of private sector tendering for cleaning jobs in the NHS was a reduction in the number of cleaners over the past two decades, leading to an increased risk of infection. Their earlier study stated that the 45% cut in cleaning staff (in 1984 there were more than 100,000 cleaners, but by 2003, the number had fallen to 55,000) directly caused the spread of the "MRSA superbug".

MRSA is blamed for 5,000 deaths a year. It is estimated that hospital-acquired infections (including but not limited to MRSA) affect about 100,000 people each year in England, costing the NHS £1bn.

Two days of uncleared waste at the front entrance of a north London NHS hospital, just near the visitors´ eating tables

Simply put, private agencies want to make a profit. In order to do this they:

1. cut staff numbers without reducing the workload, so that cleaners cannot possibly do their job properly

2. cut the amount and quality of cleaning equipment at their disposal (e.g. cheap disinfectants)

3. refuse sick pay to workers (or avoid the problem by only using part-time staff) meaning that cleaners attend work while carrying illnesses which can be passed to patients

4. fail to provide protective equipment to cleaners working in areas where patients have infectious diseases (while NHS staff are warned of the dangers of cross infection, and given suitable equipment)

5. use staff for more that one job (but no doubt charge the tax payer for both). One cleaner confirmed "I could go straight from cleaning the toilets to giving out teas; I can´t change my uniform."

6. warn staff not to speak to the press about the unsatisfactory situation.

Last month Lord Warner (health minister) published a report which found that fewer than half the hospitals in England had good or excellent cleanliness ratings. The government has published a "best practice guide" on evaluating and awarding contracts so that quality is considered alongside price.

The same north London NHS hospital, where dirty tissue paper had been left coagulating on the sink

Unison, however, have made it clear that the best way to deal with the problem, is to stop contracting cleaning out to private bodies.

"Hospital cleaners are the real experts and they say we need more staff, better equipment, proper training, effective teamwork and greater involvement in decision making. The impossibility of trying to clean too many wards with not enough staff, the cheap disinfectants, the shoddy equipment, the lack of training and sadly the lack of respect from other staff, are all barriers to cleaner hospitals."

Dave Prentis was treated for cancer of the oesophagus shortly before becoming the leader of Unison. His operation was successful, but he developed MRSA while recovering in a different hospital.

"The first was absolutely spotless. The cleaners were hospital employees and went to all the ward meetings. They would move the beds each day to clean underneath them, and the cleaner would chat to all the patients. At the other, the service was contracted out to a private firm. It was filthy, there was dirt on the curtains which the nurses weren´t allowed to clean for health and safety reasons, so it stayed there. Yet on this ward, they were looking after people who had had their legs amputated and had major wounds."

The government seems desperate to propagate the lie that private companies are somehow more efficient than public bodies. So we the taxpayer end up paying more for a substandard service because private companies have a profit margin. What actually happens here is that instead of the local Health Board employing people directly they award contracts to private companies, the private companies pay their employees less, give less training and spend much of their income on lining the pockets of upper management. The idiot capitalist idea that the drive for profits improves the standard of service simply doesn´t hold up to scrutiny. Patients in hospitals are not consumers and if we keep moving towards this view we will end up destroying one of our greatest institutions.

Posted 26th January 2005

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