The Coronavirus presents us with a significant threat, and it is one we need to respond to carefully, but clearly and urgently.
For most of us it is difficult to know the truth about the threat that the virus presents; while some people are responding to the hype in the media, creating panic buying, there are others who think it is no more serious than the flu.
Regardless of where our opinions lie on this as trade unionists and socialists we need to see this as a trade union and a class issue, as we would any other. The response to the crisis should be driven by the needs of the population, not profit.
While the government have currently taken limited measures to assist workers affected by the virus, allowing SSP to be claimed after day one instead of day three, we know that millions of people in the gig economy will get little support if they are forced to go sick. Our movement is rightly demanding that there should be sick pay available for these people so they don’t continue to work if they, or their family, are sick or self isolating.
In the Civil Service we know that serious preparations are being made for a major pandemic and it’s impact on our workplaces. Yet basic day to day precautions should be taken immediately. Public facing offices have been told that they can use sanitising gels and wipes, but a recent attempt to buy them through the central ordering system in one department found that none were available. We need our employer to act to protect us, not just talk about it. Local offices could hold meetings to discuss what steps we will take if we are not protected adequately.
Many offices complain that there are not enough cleaners. In many front facing offices desks are touched by dozens of hands every day, yet the desks are cleaned just once a week. We could be demanding more cleaners for our offices and should highlight the strikes by ISS cleaners in Bootle, Liverpool and Birmingham who are demanding the living wage.
In one office a member of staff was sent home because they had been in an at risk country, but the cleaning company refused to do a deep clean until the person had been confirmed with the Coronavirus. Fortunately they were clear, but had they not then staff had been exposed for no good reason except that the cleaning agency wanted to save money. We need to demand urgent deep cleaning, with staff advised to stay at home until it is done, wherever there is a possibility of a Coronavirus case.
The Chief Medical Officer has advised that in 2 weeks time people with coughs and colds may be told to self isolate. There is a possibility that schools will be closed. This will have a significant effect on our workplaces. We need to demand that everybody who has to self isolate, or to look after a family member who is self isolating, is guaranteed that no action will be taken against them. We need to demand that there is no increase in workload on those who continue in work.
We should also be raising concerns about unnecessarily exposing staff with vulnerable heart and lung conditions to the public.
As many of our services impact on the public we need to to demand that they don’t lose out. In the job centres if an office suffers from significant staff shortages or is forced to close claimants could lose benefits. This can be resolved by focussing remaining staff work on making sure claims are paid, not the trivia of meeting pointless targets.
Whichever department or office we work in our colleagues will be talking and worrying about Coronavirus. Our job as trade unionists is to work with them to make our offices as safe as possible, and put the PCS at the front of health and safety in the civil service.