NHS staff claim they are being prevented from speaking out during the election campaign because their bosses are applying rules about political neutrality too zealously.
Health workers have been told not to get involved in any political debates on social media during the campaign. NHS organisations have also banned staff from appearing in uniform or featuring any of their equipment, such as an ambulance, in their online posts or profiles.
Doctors, nurses and paramedics have told the Guardian that the instructions from their employers are oppressive and an attempt to stop them highlighting the fragile state of the NHS in the run-up to the 12 December poll.
The health service has been a prominent issue in the campaign so far, with the Conservatives and Labour making a series of pledges about funding and staffing.
Some NHS trusts appear to be imposing tighter restrictions on staff during the purdah period than those outlined in guidance that the NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, sent to health service leaders on 5 November.
The guidance was aimed at NHS bodies and stressed that in the campaign “as always, the NHS must act and be seen to act with political impartiality, and its resources must not be used for party political purposes.”
But its section on “staff activism” does not mention behaviour on social media. It says only: “NHS employees are free to undertake political activism in a personal capacity but should not involve their organisation or create the impression of their organisation’s involvement.”
Kevin McGee, the chief executive of Blackpool teaching hospitals NHS trust, recently wrote to all its staff saying they “should not use the trust’s premises for political activism and should make every effort to preserve public professional neutrality, especially on social media.”
Many of the NHS’s 1.5 million staff use social media, especially Twitter, to describe the pressure that the service is under. They often cite understaffing and lack of funding as key issues.
One Blackpool consultant who asked to remain anonymous said: “Being told that I cannot share my views on social media in the run-up to the election is oppressive. I feel I am being denied both my right to express myself freely and denied this opportunity to share my opinions on manifestos or party policy which the public may find valuable, given my extensive experience within the NHS.”
Health Education England has told its staff that during the campaign they should not use social networks “or online forums, communities and other public online discussions in a way that will call into question your political impartiality regarding your professional role at HEE”.
Similarly, Pauline Howie, the chief executive of the Scottish ambulance service, recently wrote to her staff saying that during the campaign “if you mention that you work for the Scottish ambulance service on your personal social media channels, you cannot get involved in any online activity, debate or discussion which is political in nature.”
NHS bodies are keen to ensure that staff who do debate political issues online do not mention which part of the health service they work for, in case it is seen to compromise their political impartiality.
For example, the “staff activism” section of East Midlands ambulance service’s guidance to employees about the pre-election period says: “NHS employees are free to undertake political activism in a personal capacity but should not involve their organisation or create the impression of their organisation’s involvement.
“Please be careful therefore with your personal social media accounts if you include where you work and/or photographs of you in uniform/with an EMAS vehicle feature in your profile.”
The Scottish government’s advice to NHS bodies says staff “should not use their official premises, uniforms or equipment and should not make comments based on information not generally available to the public.”
Dr Kumail Versi, a specialist registrar in paediatrics, said: “In light of the political climate, it is shocking to see NHS bosses trying to stop doctors from speaking out about the deterioration of the NHS under the Tory government. Doctors throughout the country are angry and frustrated at the chronic underfunding of the NHS and want to make it clear that continuing in this vein is dangerous to the public.”
NHS England’s performance against key waiting times for A&E and cancer care and planned operations has fallen to record lows, according to figures published last week. The figures prompted claims that the service has been left unable to cope with fast-rising demand for care because of nine years of austerity funding and staff shortages.
A paramedic in the north of England said: “I feel it is shameful on our management to have gagged us from speaking out out for political reasons. It’s disrespectful, frustrating and could cost lives.
“In the NHS the truth hurts, and it feels like bosses are stopping us from telling people what is really going on. People are dying in the NHS due to cuts, but management don’t want us to tell anyone. Just because there is an election on, we are being gagged to prevent the truth coming out – it’s a disgrace.”
A spokesperson for EveryDoctor, which campaigns to improve working conditions for doctors, said: “For many people, the NHS is the key issue this election season. The current conditions in the NHS are a direct consequence of nine years of planned austerity cuts by the government. To silence frontline NHS staff and prevent them from speaking up about the daily atrocities they witness is deeply wrong.”
Rachel Harrison, a national officer with the GMB union, said: “NHS staff are the ones who have kept our health service running despite a decade of slashed funding, austerity and real-terms pay cuts. So earlier this month when our members received notices instructing them not to speak about the current state of the NHS and the damage that has been done over the last decade of a Tory government, it was the final straw for some.
“GMB members on the frontline of the NHS should be able to speak openly and honestly about their real-life experiences at work in whatever forum why choose.”
Kerry Gulliver, the director of human resources and organisational development at Blackpool teaching hospitals, said: “The purdah advice that we have included in our internal newsletter to staff is consistent with national guidelines and is what is being followed by all NHS organisations. The advice is the same advice we have provided to our staff in all previous pre-election periods.”