How the Outsourcing of Hospital Cleaning Fuelled the Covid Disaster

With growing concern over the spread of Covid-19 in hospitals, new figures show that outsourcing led to a £38 million cut in hospital cleaning in the past decade – with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

My union, GMB, has called for urgent investment in hospital cleaning following worrying figures published by NHS digital that show 1,000 full-time cleaning roles have been stripped out of the Heath Service since 2010.

Hospital cleaning standards have been dropping for the last two decades, meaning that before the pandemic, patients were already acquiring infections. The rise of superbugs like MRSA in our hospitals during the 1990s correlated to the roll out of Private Finance Initiave (PFIs): new wards built under the scheme were smaller and lacked adequate ventilation.

The outsourcing of hospital cleaning compounded the problem as monitoring ward cleaning standards was removed from clinical staff duties and put into the hands of facilities’ company managers, who were far more interested in controlling and cutting hospital cleaning budgets. Research by Oxford University in 2016 indicated that the risk of catching superbugs like MRSA rises by 50 percent where cleaning is outsourced to a private provider.

The onset of a contagious and deadly coronavirus pandemic puts the issue of hospital cleaning under the spotlight. It’s known that coronavirus can last for hours or even days on hard surfaces, and as a result, hospitals resemble petri dishes. Those who are most unwell are admitted to hospital, which means the virus is concentrated, and the risk of carrying the disease around and outside hospitals and into communities is very high. Too many health workers are among the high numbers of people becoming very unwell and dying from Covid-19, which indicates that infection control measures are not working.

Thorough and regular cleaning of surfaces on hospital wards should be an important infection control measure to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, but GMB members have long been reporting that clinical areas are no longer cleaned regularly. Spot cleaning is now advised by domestic supervisors so that cleaners can get through impossible workloads created by cuts to staffing. One cleaner working in Lewisham Hospital—but employed by a transnational private cleaning company, ISS—reported the following in June 2020:

Yesterday I received from management a list of things which I’m doing wrong. For very first time I was told that my area is dirty. They expanded our areas, gave us more jobs in same working hours, and now they are surprised that we have no time to clean properly.

Supervisors are pushing us to do more than we can handle because otherwise ISS will pay a financial penalty. This is unbelievable. They expect us to kill ourselves over this job. I have six toilets, nine rooms (one large theatre), and four waiting areas and corridors to do in four hours. And they keep asking why I didn’t do the dusting, or why I don’t remove chewing gum underneath the chairs, or why I don’t remove limescale from old, damaged taps. Is it a joke?

They call us superheroes, and we really are. But they treat us as slaves.

It’s concerning that the above report was submitted during the first peak of the pandemic: it indicates a lack of seriousness about the importance of thorough hospital cleaning as an infection control measure. Just because the coronavirus cannot be seen with the naked eye doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it’s less deadly – but at the outset of the pandemic, multiple union members reported that private company managers were calling the rise of Covid-19 ‘fake news’.

There is no doubt that the privatisation of hospital cleaning has led to cuts in cleaning quality. This is a risk factor for further unnecessary transmission of Covid-19: additional and not less cleaning should be introduced in all hospitals during this pandemic to protect patients, the staff, and the public. GMB Union is correctly calling for increased investment in hospital cleaning in order to lower the risk of transmission of Covid-19 – but the privatisation of hospital cleaning is now the biggest barrier to the introduction of this life-saving infection control measure.