Published On: 24th October 2023

On 27 September 2023 the Covid-19 Inquiry held a preliminary hearing in relation to Module 3 of its investigation further to the handling of the pandemic by public bodies in the UK. Those public bodies include the National Health Service (NHS), national Government departments, and local authorities.

Module 3 will consider the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems throughout the UK. It will consider the healthcare consequences of how the Government responded to the pandemic. It will look at capacity of all healthcare systems to responded to a pandemic and people’s experience of healthcare during pandemic. The module will also examine healthcare-related inequalities, such as death rates and PPE.

Lawyers from the Public interest Law Centre (PILC) are representing the ‘Frontline Migrant Health Workers Group’ (FMHWG) who comprise three organisations. First, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and second the United Voices of the World (UVW) both non-TUC affiliated trade unions. They represent frontline workers who are cleaners, porters, couriers and kitchen staff who are low paid outsourced workers employed in many cases on worse terms and conditions than fellow ‘in-house’ workers in the NHS.

Third, as part of the FMHWG we also represent Kanlungan, a consortium of Filipino, South East and East Asian grassroots community organisations. Kanlungan members work across the healthcare sector as nurses, cleaners and domestic healthcare staff. Throughout the pandemic their members worked on the frontline in the NHS and other healthcare facilities.

These three organisations were granted Core Participant status at the Inquiry as the Frontline Migrant Health Workers Group.

At the preliminary hearing we spoke to these 3 key areas that we believe the Inquiry needs to examine. Our oral submission to the Inquiry can be read here.

  1. Scope and issues for the Inquiry.

Prior to the oral hearing we provided important written submissions on behalf of our clients where we raised issues regarding the scope of the Inquiry’s investigations.

In their initial provisional list of issues the Inquiry only referred to ‘clinical staff’ and not ‘non-clinical staff.’ We argued that ‘non-clinical staff’ which would include essential workers such as hospital porters, hospital cleaners, catering workers and medical couriers, made vital and ongoing contributions to ensure that healthcare systems continued.

Counsel to the Inquiry in her opening oral submission accepted this point, advised that non-clinical staff would be included and fully acknowledged it was an oversight to not include ‘non-clinical staff.’

We also made representations on behalf of domestic healthcare workers, many of whom are from a migrant background. Further to those submissions we now know they will be included in a later module, and their role through the pandemic will be acknowledged.

  • Expert evidence

In these preliminary submissions on behalf of the FMHWG we raised the need for an expert to be instructed by the Inquiry to particularly consider issues relating to outsourcing and the impact of privatisation in the NHS. In addition that expert should also consider the impact of hostile environment immigration policies on healthcare services, and healthcare workers.

For our clients, outsourcing and the linked issue of privatisation has been a disaster not just for them personally, the impact it has on their pay and working conditions – but crucially the impact on a quality of care and the impact it has on weakening the NHS itself.

  • Witness evidence.

The FMHWG regard this Inquiry as vitally important to their members and to the future of the NHS. Like the Trades Unions Congress we stressed the importance of the Inquiry hearing directly from our clients who worked on the frontline. We argued that they must be seen and heard.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic delivered a considerable shock to every aspect of society and shone a light on major systemic failings. The staggering loss of life witnessed in numerous regions across the globe has prompted profound questions. Those systemic failings and probing questions are not solely about how care was provided, but more about how we fund and organise public health in the future – is it for need or for profit?

Diya Sen Gupta KC of Blackstone Chambers and Piers Marquis of Doughty Street Chambers are instructed.