‘Understand your pensions, please’: Nurses fought ‘war on NHS’

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption During the flu pandemic in 1968, nurses were forced to stay home after some nurses became ill

“We are used to public health bosses working with us, encouraging schools to stock up on supplies of clean drinking water and stationery”, explains Kellie O’Keeffe, from the Royal College of Nursing.

“The real trouble started when those nurses were sent home.

“Every health authority realised they needed staff in their schools to make sure they had supplies in classrooms to treat fever, cough and sore throats.

“But once the nurses went, the idea of their expertise being needed in schools and medical centres was immediately opposed.”

Kellie says she first met the opposition when she was classing for university.

“I thought: ‘What are they talking about? You take a night off work because you’re ill, the fire brigade can’t help you, you’ve got nowhere to go’, I think the media made it seem like that.

“But then the reality kicked in when I started working in schools, and visiting secondary health care teams in the community.

“We brought back a lot of colleagues who had worked on pandemics in the 1960s. Many of them returned because they saw the same level of anxiety and panic in the community that they had faced when they were in hospitals.”

Image copyright Tim Bosma Image caption In 1978, some nurses came home sick

During the flu pandemic in 1968, a nurse in south London remained ill after working through the night in a subzero zero degree temperature to start treating patients who had suffered severe breathing difficulties.

According to NHS figures from the year, almost 52,000 nurses in England were ill in the week leading up to 1 May, taking a total time off for their illness of 3,200 hours.

She took the day off to receive treatment, in total, for six days.

What role did nurses play?

Image copyright PA Image caption The vaccine for flu was in short supply in the 1960s

“The war on the NHS has now been won. We’ve handed it back to the general public, and we’ve finished educating them about what the NHS does and how it works.

“We’re no longer a target, and have been fairly ostracised because of it.”

Kellie points out that although a nurse who came into contact with an infectious virus would likely have shown symptoms in a few days, some people could die from the virus for as long as a week.

“The health workers were protected because of WHO international guidelines. The governments had assured them that the staff who had contact with these patients would receive sufficient immunisation.”

“For a couple of days, we were meant to have an EWH (Epidemiology of Health), but within that small window, any health worker became infected.

“Once we got back into hospitals and health centres, many of our partners had picked up cases, but they didn’t want us looking at the health workers themselves.

“We had been told there wasn’t a pandemic at that point, but within two to three days, the community became terrified.”

Kellie stresses that she still does not see any scientific evidence that shows nurses could have been protected.

“Health professionals were not testing for the virus in the community.

“If we had been, we might have increased the vaccinations for health workers, or put adequate advice into the community, allowing people to get the flu vaccination.”

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