EXCLUSIVE: Tooting hospital’s cleaning staff discussed walking out before pandemic over risks and poor hygiene

A hospital’s staff have threatened to walk out over claims of poor hygiene on wards which they say is putting the health of patients, medics and their colleagues at risk.

Cleaners at St George’s Hospital have discussed strike action amid claims their health is being put at risk every time they do a shift – and three have died during the coronavirus pandemic.

The risk of infection and poor staffing levels sparked a string of meetings to organise a ballot over a walkout as the crisis hit – but they have halted any plan for action during lockdown.

The contract cleaners have been left severely stretched after 30 redundancies at St George’s last autumn, which they said led to a decline in hygiene standards – which ward medics complained about.

Up to 16 cleaners are claimed by their union to have been infected in St George’s alone – and three have died. It was one of the worst-hit hospitals by the pandemic in the first weeks of the crisis.

Union colleague Helen O’Connor said of one cleaner who died, Fyngs Mullings: “Fyngs was a very polite and pleasant man to deal with.

“He was very anxious about the situation at the hospital.

“He recognised the importance of sticking up for his colleagues and always made an effort on their behalf.

“Everyone was stressed last autumn about workload, pay and safety and now it is worse.”

Those left have a string of grievances against contract cleaning firm Mitie, which has a 10-year, £10million cleaning contract at the hospital until 2029.

Cleaners claim:

  •  there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and that what cleaners were given was inadequate to protect them – especially as they were cleaning beds and areas in Covid-19 wards.
  • staff were not briefed properly about the detailed risks of coronavirus; and how to use their PPE in the early weeks – and two of the three who died were infected around the end of March.
  • Mitie’s 30 redundancies last autumn cut the number of staff – but left the hospital having t o hire temporary staff from Blue Arrow
  • nurses and housekeepers on many wards complained about dust on floors which had not been cleaned properly
  • the cut in hours for many existing staff last autumn meant many struggled financially
  • a mop cleaning machine was out of action (though now repaired) – and single mops have been used for entire wards. Normally, four deep-cleaned ones would be used on any ward.

Ms O’Connor, the GMB’s regional organiser, said: “Once again, the failure of private contractors to keep our hospitals safe is laid bare.

“Hospitals are petri dishes for infection, so thorough cleaning is absolutely vital – but especially when there is an infection killing people.

“Staff are working all hours to make ends meet and that exposes them to huge risk.

“I spoke directly to health secretary Matt Hancock two years ago about the public health risk of this contract, particularly with people working when sick. It was dangerous even then – and how much more now.

“Right now, cleaning floors and surfaces is crucial.”

On March 22, the day before prime minister Boris Johnson ordered lockdown, St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had the joint highest number of deaths, 24, for a healthcare trust in the country.

A spokesman for Mitie said: “All three colleagues were very highly thought of members of the team, well-liked by both staff and patients across the hospital. They were true gentlemen and will be incredibly missed. Our thoughts and condolences are with all their family and friends at this difficult time.”

The company statement added:

“Mops

  • The mop dryer was fixed some time ago
  • However, this didn’t affect cleaning on site as the mops are pre-treated ready to be used wet and also all cloths used are disposable, therefore no requirement for the dryer during this period.
  • There is also a constant supply of mops coming on to site and hundreds in the stores

“PPE and training

  • The Trust is responsible for providing all PPE for all employees on site. Questions regarding PPE provision should be directed to them.
  • We implemented new standard operating procedures to specifically address COVID-19
  • NHS posters and guidelines are displayed in staff areas and across the hospital including outside any Covid wards
  • We hold daily staff briefings and weekly calls with senior managers. Supervisors are also carrying out regular checks with colleagues
  • We have created a specific COVID19 “library” online which is updated regularly in line with Government and Company policy.
  • There is a dedicated board which is updated daily so all staff are aware of any updates regarding Covid related PPE
  • All staff have received additional training regarding the increased requirements for cleaning in Covid environments and related PPE, whether they work on a Covid ward or not. This was done in collaboration with the Trusts Infection Control team.

“Contract remodelling

  • A new contract model was introduced last year
  • As part of this, 30 staff left on a voluntary basis and this was agreed with GMB in advance
  • All remaining employees received a pay increase to London Living Wage
  • We continue to deliver high standards of cleaning and all our processes and working methods are based on NHS best practice, developed in conjunction with subject matter experts and approved by the Infection Control team at St George’s Hospital.

“Other points to note

  • Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our employees is our priority, both for their benefit and other staff and patients at the hospital
  • The three staff in your previous article did not work on Covid wards
  • Any colleagues who exhibit symptoms immediately self-isolate on full pay, to ensure that they are able to recover and don’t put others in the hospital at risk
  • Given the nature of these roles, colleagues are entitled to testing and we have encouraged any staff self-isolating to take a test.”

Jacqueline Totterdell, chief executive at St George’s Hospital, said: “This is deeply sad news for everyone at St George’s. Our Mitie colleagues are all a key part of Team St George’s, and many staff have been deeply affected by the sad deaths of Salih and Fyngs in recent weeks.

“Salih Hassan and Fyngs were very popular and well-liked faces on our wards, and committed to doing the very best job possible for staff, patients and their relatives.

“They will be missed by everyone who knew them, and at this difficult time, our thoughts are with their families, who kindly agreed for us to share the news of their sad deaths with colleagues, and the communities we serve.”

A spokesman for the hospital added: “We are well stocked with cleaning equipment, and there is no shortage of mops. Our mop dryer was temporarily out of action, but has now been fixed. This did not adversely affect the cleaning of our clinical or non-clinical areas at any stage.”

Pictured: Cleaners at St George’s protest about contract changes last autumn


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