The independent London newspaper

Protest vigil after six hospital workers at UCLH die from coronavirus

Fresh calls for protective equipment

30 April, 2020 — By Tom Foot

A RECEPTIONIST, two porters, a security guard, a member of catering staff and a switchboard operator at University College Hospital have all died from coronavirus.

The six staff, all of who have died in the past fortnight, were remembered by colleagues in a vigil outside the hospital on International Workers’ Memorial Day.  The one-minute silence across the country had been part of a nationwide gesture of gratitude for the efforts of NHS workers to hold back Covid-19, but also acted as a protest amid familiar concerns that high-quality protective equipment had still not reached all hospital workers. With the numbers of people dying, it is not clear how coroners’ inquests – hearings that aim to establish the facts behind what led to each death – will be organised.

The vigil came as insiders told the New Journal they did not want hospital managers to fall in line with Public Health England’s claims about protective equipment. While the workforce is united in the fight against the virus, there are concerns among colleagues that all of those who have died are from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities and that supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) could not be stretched to cover all non-clinical staff in the hospital.

Speaking on Tuesday outside the hospital, UCLH nurse Janet Maiden, a rep for the Unison union, said: “We have asked for PPE. This is aimed at the government, not at our NHS trust. We think that every health worker should have PPE, and no health worker should be able to come to work thinking they are going to die. We remember the dead, and fight for the living.”

She added: “April 28 is International Workers’ Memorial Day, and as such the unions wanted to commemorate people who had died in the hospital.”

The vigil followed a minute’s silence inside the hospital. Chief executive Marcel Levi has spoken to staff as has chairwoman Baroness Julia Neuberger.  Names of the dead workers had been sent out to staff through the hospital’s internal communication system and were later posted on placards at the vigil outside. An online fundraising page has been set up for receptionist Lola Aladejana, described as a “wife, mother, friend, sister, colleague”. It says she “loved helping people, love her family, and more importantly, she loved God”.

Another staff member listed is switchboard operator Felicity Siyachitema who, according to a family statement in the Zimbabwean Herald newspaper, “was a helpful person, a hard worker, a mother and a dedicated nurse”. One of the porters who died had been at the hospital for more than 20 years.

The New Journal understands four staff were employed by Interserve, a company providing outsourced cleaning, security and porters for UCLH. UCLH, the Whittington, Royal Free and Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trusts have throughout the coronavirus crisis stuck to a common line that supplies of PPE are adequate and in line with protocols and guidance.

But one source at the hospital said there are concerns that public statements were too reassuring, adding: “It’s true we are following all the guidance, but are the guidance and protocols enough to protect everyone? There is thinking that the level of PPE in intensive care units should be spread out to other areas. “Everyone should have full-on FFP3.”

FFP3 masks offer the highest level of protection from infection.

Last week, an NHS mental health worker warned that outreach staff were not getting proper kit compared to those working on inpatient wards after Andy Costa, a long-serving worker at Highgate Mental Hospital, died from the coronavirus.

The New Journal reported in March how some porters at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead had refused extra shifts because of fears over their safety.

At the Whittington, long-serving porter Nick Joseph – known as “The General” – died from coronavirus earlier this month. Flowers were laid and a minute’s silence was held there on Tuesday, as unions and staff remembered the frontline workers who have died during the pandemic. Unions come together every year for International Workers’ Memorial Day to remember those who have died.

A socially distanced group of trade unionists, including the National Education Union (NEU), Unite, Unison and the RMT, gathered outside the Whittington at 11am while hospital staff stood together inside.

They said they were also dedicating the silence to bus drivers such as Emeka Nyack-Ihenacho, who lived in Dartmouth Park, and worked out of the Holloway Bus Garage until his death from Covid-19. Siobhan Harrington, Whittington Health NHS Trust chief executive, said: “It is heartbreaking when any member of the NHS loses their life.”

In a statement, Interserve said: “We are deeply saddened by the deaths of our colleagues. “Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have passed away during this challenging time.”

A spokesperson for UCLH, said: “Lola Aladejana was an agency worker who had been at University College Hospital for four years, most recently working as a receptionist on the main desk at the hospital. Felicity Sarah Siyachitema worked as a switchboard operator and had been employed at UCLH since 2017. We are deeply saddened by their loss. They were much-loved and respected team members and our thoughts are with their family, friends and loved ones. “I would also like to emphasise that UCLH has all the PPE kit it needs to ensure that staff are suitably protected in their jobs.”

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