Keyworkers: Voices from the front line

Shona Craig – Home carer

As UNISON members face new unprecedented challenges in the workplace, Scotland in UNISON asked three front line workers what the changes, challenges and positives have been for them in responding to the pandemic.

Aberdeenshire UNISON home care member Shona Craig describes how things have changed for her since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“It has been great to be able to call on the knowledge and support of the union” Shona Craig

Kirsten Hey – Occupational therapist

Shona said, “Our work changed dramatically in the early days. We had to use PPE but at the start we didn’t know if it was the right PPE and we didn’t have enough of it. Guidance was thin on the ground and everyone was unsure about how best to protect ourselves and our clients.

“There was no testing for people coming home from hospital so we didn’t know who might have the virus. We had to be watching out the whole time for symptoms. We were all really anxious about catching the virus and passing it on to our clients or taking it home to our families.

Andrew Verrechia – Operating department practitioner

“As time has gone on things have got better. Ourselves, our union reps and our managers had to really push for it, but we now have the right PPE and that makes us feel much better. We are able to wear a mask if we think it’s needed, and we have enough masks to do that.

“Clients coming out of hospital are being tested twice before they come home, so that makes us feel safer.”

Asked what has helped, Shona said that they have had really good support from their own line managers who have gone above and beyond.

She added that having UNISON there for advice and back-up has been really important.

Occupational therapists in community practice teams in Edinburgh are now only dealing with emergency, essential, and life and limb work.

One of them, Kirsten Hey, has also been working in a care home as part of the commitment and flexibility staff have shown in the crisis.

She explained: “We are working from home and using a rota to respond to work. I asked to be redeployed and am doing back shifts in a council care home, mainly as a care worker, but using my OT skills for manual handling, seating assessments etc.”

For Kirsten, the biggest challenge has been the anxiety staff feel about the risk of infection, mainly the fear that they might infect a service user.

IT problems, the bugbear of all local government workers, have also been a challenge with staff having to go into the office to dock laptops because the IT doesn’t always work at home.

However, Kirsten had praise for how the union and others have responded: “What has helped is the frequent good quality info from the UNISON branch health and safety officer along with the availability of PPE, supportive managers, sensible service users and families who understand why we are reducing service to emergencies only.”

The biggest change for Andrew Verrechia, an operating department practitioner in theatres at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, has been the increase in the wearing of full PPE on a regular basis. “It’s a long day when a lot of it is spent decked from head to toe in it.”

He also highlighted the pace of change to routine. “The ever-changing climate of government advice which seems to vary from week to week and government to government, bringing changes to working practices, has sometimes seen emotions run high as staff try to adapt to new ways of working.”

“Tragically we have also had to come to terms with the death of a colleague who was a patient in the department at the time.

“Our procurement staff have been run off their feet dealing with the constant flood of supplies, including the supply of full PPE equipment. We have never gone without and they have performed heroically to ensure our safety.”

Andrew feels the biggest help has been the team working together and supporting each other. “It is sometimes easy to forget that healthcare workers share the same fears and anxieties as everyone else regarding this situation”, said Andrew, so the mutual support has been very welcome.

He also singled out constructive engagement between unions and management which has ensured that non-work related issues like school closures have been dealt with sensibly and supportively, as have self-isolating and shielding issues.