Its implications for our already-under-pressure emergency services are significant. As the pandemic continues, there is a greater pressure on the emergency first responders to respond appropriately and safely. In this article, I highlight why frontline emergency services staff deserve better pay, treatment and working conditions than just our applause in their fight against coronavirus to protect the public and save lives.
Emergency services have witnessed massive reductions in their budgets over the past ten years, which have impacted the response and service delivery of these organisations. For the police service, funding from central government has fallen by 30 per cent in real terms since 2011 and police chiefs have expressed concerns about reaching a ‘tipping point’ over budget cuts. While the government’s decision to recruit 20,000 new police officers should be welcomed, it has been met with scepticism in certain quarters. Is it merely filling the gap in number of officers lost due to budget cuts since 2010? Is it enough to meet the future demands of the service?
The Fire and Rescue Service has done a commendable job to absorb funding reductions since 2010 but also highlights risks to their financial and service sustainability. Similarly, the demand for ambulance services continue to grow rapidly, but the increased funding has not matched service demand and it struggles to meet its performance targets. In my work, I have argued how the funding gap makes meeting the targets a ‘mission impossible’ and doing more with less is proving impossible and should be strongly contested at the highest levels.
The Coronavirus pandemic has further exposed these fault lines. The Fire Brigade Union has alleged that cuts to the Service are ‘rushed through’ locally during the pandemic despite the commitment by the firefighters to volunteer for additional duties to support other emergency services during this national crisis. Concerns around budgets, staff pay, working conditions, staff numbers, equipment and pension, among other things, have been ignored in the past and need urgent attention.
“Doing more with less is proving impossible and should be strongly contested at the highest levels”
Sickness Absence and Staff Resilience
The problem of sickness absence due to shift work is a much wider one across the emergency services. Ambulance staff have the highest sickness absence rates amongst NHS workers. Maintaining adequate staffing levels during the Coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing the emergency services. In a rapidly dynamic and fluid situation, initial reports emerged that one in five police officers are off sick or self-isolating in areas worst hit by the virus, while absentee rates for other forces is averaging about ten per cent, and is predicted to rise to about 25 per cent as the virus spreads in their areas. Monitoring sickness levels and improving resilience amongst staff was also highlighted by police chiefs as a major concern while giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee recently.
This aspect is crucial to maintain operational resilience and strategic capability when demand grows on emergency services over the coming weeks and months. Service chiefs will have to closely monitor staff availability to maintain adequate response capability in dealing with this unprecedented situation, while being sensitive to sickness absence cases. Cases of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff have also been highlighted in the press after concerns have been raised by staff unions. Protecting frontline staff in their efforts against the Coronavirus pandemic is critical.
“Ministers need to have a real honest debate on addressing the issues I have highlighted”
Mental Health and Wellbeing of Frontline Staff
Another challenge facing the frontline staff in addition to their physical health remains the psychological wellbeing. Latest evidence suggests that frontline staff have increased the risk of ‘moral injury’ and mental health problems while dealing with the Covid-19 situation. I have also recently drawn attention to the aggravation of stress levels for the emergency services staff due to the current pandemic.
Emotional accounts of frontline staff have emerged fighting burnout while tackling Coronavirus in addition to dealing with PPE shortages, sickness or even the death of colleagues. Frontline staff are being also exposed to trauma and in one instance an officer was called to 15 Covid-19-related deaths in 24 hours. Working in such stressful environments, often alone, or called to homes is further exacerbated by the feeling of isolation and not being able to share.
A healthy work force is ‘sine qua non’ for effective working of the emergency services around the world. A package involving pre-incident training, managerial support accompanied by a nurturing organisational culture will go a long way for staff dealing with the pandemic.
The nation has been saluting the selfless devotion of frontline staff by clapping and banging drums in the streets every Thursday. However, this may not be enough. When services have been stripped of budgets, when frontline staff are facing PPE shortages and undergoing psychological trauma in the line of duty, ministers need to have a real honest debate on addressing the issues I have highlighted.
Worryingly, by elevating frontline staff to a status of ‘heroes’ and setting our expectations ‘too high’, we may be doing a disservice by putting them potentially under ‘more stress’ as the guilt over not meeting those standards can be detrimental to their mental health and effectiveness. Instead, it would be more rewarding to recognise the challenges faced by our emergency services and act upon them.