In 1985, I and a fellow hospital chaplain, along with fellow union members, occupied the board room at Barnsley hospital to protest about the threatened privatisation of cleaning services. While local people had a hazy view of what it was all about, we saw it as the thin edge of a very large wedge – and it was. The cleaners and chaplains were removed by the police and the privatisation went ahead. Thirty-five years later, it was a joy to read the account of the victory of the Lewisham cleaners in securing better pay and conditions from their company (‘You have to take action’: one hospital cleaner’s journey through the pandemic, Long read, 30 June). There still appears to be a widespread lack of public awareness of what the NHS is – an arm of the state within which large chunks of the service have been outsourced to the private sector.
• Sophie Elmhirst makes a timely claim for recognition of hospital cleaners’ rights. Tendering for cheaper and speedier cleaning has also almost certainly assisted the increase in MRSA infections. Contracting out has coincided with, or fostered, managerial changes distancing the function of cleaning further and further from nursing care. A friend who contracted MRSA during cancer treatment at a major London hospital was provided with a separate room; a visitor was appalled to find that no cleaning had taken place during the eight days of vomiting and diarrhoea. Rushing out into the ward, he asked for help from a nurse, who replied: “But I can’t do anything.”
Control of the patient environment is a crucial aspect of nursing care, and cleaners used to be valued as an essential wing of the nursing force. The effect of outsourcing on nursing morale and on patients’ welfare has never been properly considered.
Dr Anne Summers
• Guardian house style: full name the first time, surname thereafter. Except when it’s not. The long read features several people who are referred to in this manner – a writer, a former high-ranking council officer, a union official, a CEO – and one who isn’t. The cleaner and union activist whose work is the main focus of the article is evidently black, female and a manual worker. Although her full name is stated, she is then called by her first name, Ernesta, throughout. When will the Guardian stop patronising people whose status in society, shamefully, is lower than it ought to be? Let’s see respect for everyone you report on.
Newcastle upon Tyne