Many NHS staff are increasingly concerned that their ability to share stories about their work is limited by a crackdown on public speaking.
It follows reports that doctors and nurses have been gagged by hospitals and other NHS agencies to denounce the widespread shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Tactics include threatening emails, the possibility of disciplinary action and some people even fired from work.
While there may be some logic for hospitals wishing to stop alarming when communications services are overworked at busy times, many staff feel constrained from highlighting their work during the pandemic .
Workers who spoke to the Guardian say they fear being punished. Several professionals have expressed fear of losing their jobs. Examples include an email signed by the CEO of an NHS trust prohibiting all staff from speaking to the media, and incidents where staff suspect that emails and social media accounts are being monitored. Staff requests to communications staff to allow them to speak to the press were rejected, leaving staff worried and fearful of their work during the worst global public health crisis of this century.
A nurse who wanted to emphasize the vital role of her profession received an email (recalled later) from her confidence to all the staff, who prohibited public communications. When he contacted the communications department, he was shocked to receive a response simply saying that there was no media. The team did not say what steps they could take to enforce the ban, he said, but the tone threatened.
The nurse added, “As health care professionals, I think we generally feel pretty safe – there is always work for nurses. But in my correspondence with the communications department, I suddenly felt helpless. It makes me so sad. Ironically, he added, the coronavirus actually led to highlighting the role of nurses in a way they could never have dreamed of, including on the front pages of glossy magazines.
Not all NHS trusts in England have imposed a blanket ban on staff speaking, and some encourage professionals who want to talk about their work. A number of employees have recently explained their roles behind the scenes to the Guardian, but most of those who speak out tend to be doctors, often in secure positions where they are less likely to be arrested or threatened.
Kate Jarman, director of corporate affairs at the NHS Foundation at Milton Keynes University Hospital, says staff should be supported to talk about life in office. “There is always a balance to be found in the way staff deliver messages,” she said. “People need to be aware of patient confidentiality and essential public safety and information messages, but from what I’ve seen, they do. “
The Guardian is aware of several cases where staff have been silenced. They include:
- A health care professional worried about his job after his communications department discovered he had told a reporter about his job.
- Staff of a trust that has been disciplined for reporting. A general email signed by the CEO of a trust has been sent, warning staff not to speak to the media under any circumstances. Some employees believe that social media accounts are being monitored.
Health workers from different trusts who volunteered to be interviewed about their work during the coronavirus period and were told that they could not mention trust or their work at the hospital.
A hospital director who said he had received press / media advice from the trust he worked for and would not be able to say anything for the foreseeable future.
A mental health worker in a secure psychiatric unit said he was terrified of speaking publicly because he had already been reprimanded by senior management for highlighting aspects of patient care.
Unions representing NHS staff have expressed concerns. Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, national health official at Unite, which represents 100,000 health workers, said officials had heard that some NHS bosses may have cracked down on workers wishing to report system failures and improve patient well-being.
A spokesperson for the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, a professional body for scientists, support staff and students, said members working for the NHS who wanted to talk about their vital role in the crisis were further encountering in addition to the same obstacles. “Hospital trusts in England are silencing our requests to speak to members.”
The ramifications of such repression at a time when NHS personnel risk their lives and are celebrated by the general public are frightening, but not surprising to some. Roger Kline, a researcher at Middlesex University who has done a lot of work on whistleblowing, said, “Old habits die hard, and I have certainly been contacted by the NHS and concerned social service staff. to become public and nervous about challenging local issues. managers. “
A mental health professional told the Guardian that the unspoken rule is that staff should keep their heads down, follow orders, and say nothing. “When it comes to the clinical problems and everyday challenges we face, there is a well-defined power dynamic, and [we] are usually petrified to speak up, “they said.
Preventing people from talking about their work doesn’t just happen in the UK. Hospitals in the United States are threatening to fire health workers who advertise their working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic – and in some cases, have followed suit.