The governments “road map” provides four steps towards full re-opening of society by 21 June 2021. After all this time who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to once again meet up with friends and family, go the pub, and take a holiday or attend sporting events, theatres and concerts. Optimism is fuelled by the progress being made on the vaccination programme which has now seen around 20 million people in the UK receive their first jab, over one-third of the adult population. Understandably many workers will give a cautious welcome to the proposals but are they cause for celebration?
Over 114 million people worldwide have contracted Covid and over 2.5 million have lost their lives, including at least 123,000 from the UK. Figures provided by Public Health England show the UK has now passed 100,000 excess deaths which puts the UK at amongst the highest in the world. It’s no coincidence that USA, Brazil and India who have all had right-wing populist governments with vicious neo liberal economic policies also feature amongst the highest death rate rates.
Since March 2020 an additional 1.2 million are seeking either Job Seekers Allowance or Universal Credit; and 4.7 million remain on government furlough schemes though over 11 million have benefitted from this scheme since its introduction. It is PCS members who have administered these schemes to help those hardest hit by the pandemic. In addition around 15% (five million) of the UK workforce is self-employed and during lockdown those working for themselves didn’t have employee benefits, such as sick pay or the furlough scheme. Many of our members may consider themselves as relatively fortunate to have been able to continue working in these circumstances, although some sections of our membership particularly amongst catering and support grades and staff in the culture sector have not been so lucky.
That the UK was so poorly prepared to effectively tackle this pandemic will come as no surprise to those of us who have spent the last ten years fighting austerity and privatisation that left our National Health Service desperately short of beds and PPE. The Tories have responded by illegally awarding contacts and the running of the Track and Trace system to their mates.
It didn’t have to be this way – When a new variant of the virus was found in Bristol recently surge testing centres and community testing were set up within a matter of days. Over 30,000 were tested and identified just 24 cases that were quickly isolated and contained. Rapid surge testing has also taken place in other cities where outbreaks have occurred.
Measures such as these and providing people with the financial security to self-isolate following a positive test could have saved thousands of lives. Yet the Government has moved heaven and earth to avoid taking any personal responsibility. An invisible Parliamentary opposition and a largely supine national media have allowed them to get away with this – instead, cultivating a blame game where outbreaks must be the fault of an irresponsible general public. Nearly 70,000 fines have now been issued against individual lockdown breaches but there has not been one single prosecution of any employer during this period.
Figures have shown around 90% public compliance during lockdown periods. Workers generally understand the seriousness of the situation and can see the need to support each other. Anti-lockdown protests in Britain have been very small in numbers and generally confined to far right activists and various conspiracy theory groups. They haven’t attracted large numbers of workers frustrated by the lockdown restrictions placed upon them. Anger has rightly been directed at figures in authority, such as Dominic Cummings, when caught breaching the regulations.
The role of PCS
PCS acted quickly to secure the ability of the majority of our members to work safely from home at the outset although there have been some exceptions to this. To convert thousands of customer facing public service jobs to working from home is very challenging. Where I work in delivering Planning Appeal decisions we already had well established home working policies, but now even our public telephony work can be done from home. Where such work involves handling sensitive confidential customer information there are further challenges to delivering this.
There was always a bit of and “us and them” culture in the past where home workers seemed to have it easy whilst those in the office constantly had the gaffer on their back. These misconceptions have now been broken down. Unfortunately, there remains a public perception around working from home. Although there are clear benefits for employers and many staff, it isn’t for everyone. Lack of space and equipment; others living and working with you; as carers; or home schooling are all problems we have had to alleviate for members. For people like me who live alone there are also problems with isolation particularly during lockdown restrictions which prevents access to friends and family that can really effect mental health and well-being. Sadly the home isn’t always the safest place to work for some as lockdowns have also seen a disturbing increase in incidents of domestic violence.
PCS under our Democracy Alliance NEC and Left Unity Group leaderships has put member’s personal safety as our number one priority with regular discussions with Cabinet Office and our various Departments with all of their different historic working practices taking place throughout. Our members are largely in jobs where we are providing vital public services and support to some of society’s most vulnerable people so we have had to strike a balance between the two. There remain issues that arise through obstructive management and unfortunately some of our members have lost their lives. An early incident arising at HMRC in Salford eventually prompted management action but only after an effective intervention from the Branch reps on the ground with the necessary support from Group and National Union. Equipping our reps with the confidence to deal with local incidents is vital.
Sadly not all parts of the Union have been able to resolve these Health concerns through negotiation and agreement and we have to utilise Health and Safety law where we can but sometimes even that is not enough. We are currently having to ballot members at DVLA in Swansea and in our MOJ Court Service where unsafe working practices are taking place. Left Unity gives full support to our members in their fight for safe working conditions.
From a Union organising perspective we have had to change the way we go about our business too. There are downsides – during the first lockdown last year we, alongside many other organisations, had to cancel our Annual Delegate Conference and our National Executive Committee elections, which under Tory anti-union legislation have to be conducted by fully postal balloting. These will go ahead this year, although ADC and group conferences will be virtual, and so some of the normal procedures will be carried out differently. Nevertheless, we look forward to being able to resume these events this year online and for some delegates, this is likely to make these events more accessible.
HMRC representatives have been able to speak directly to over 11000 PCS members during their recent pay and contract reform ballot, without spending a penny in Travel and Subsistence, although this does take its toll on our staff and reps’ time and working hours. The ballot delivered an 82.4% membership participation turnout, so there are some clear longer term Organising benefits.
So what of the “road map” and the future?
Much well founded scepticism surrounds the full reopening of schools. There is not one single person who doesn’t recognise the educational value of school children mixing and interacting with their peers least of all the Education Unions. The NEU and other Unions are calling for a staggered approach to return; full risk assessments both of workplace and individual; evidence of continuing falls in infection rates and respect for scientific advice including social distancing and safety measures and protecting vulnerable staff; avoiding excessive workloads; and comprehensive testing, tracing and isolating. It should also be remembered that schools have not been closed and teachers are not “returning to work” but have remained open for children of key workers. Education workers themselves will already have practical experience of the likely risks and the fact that after a year they are still having to raise these basic safety measures to be implemented, when most of them won’t yet have had their initial vaccination illustrates their concerns. We give our full support to the NEU and other Education workers. If their fears are realised then the road map could crash at the first stage.
For PCS members the government advice for now remains work at home if you can and only travel for necessary work. Pressure to return to offices could develop according to how the plan unfolds with Johnson having already dismissing working from home as the default long term option. However some departments are already putting in place arrangements for either fully working from home or office or a combination of the two and some Departmental collective agreements are progressing or already in place. Nevertheless, we can anticipate big battles to come over this issue.
Although many workers want to be able to meet and greet their colleagues again even if for part of their working week, who really wants a return to overcrowded public transport, or hours stuck in traffic jams just to get into a poorly ventilated germ factory and a daily fight for a desk? I don’t think anybody will miss the traumas of hot desking or the mass fire drill on a cold winter’s day. Personally I have missed the camaraderie of the office, new staff arriving who you have no idea who they are or long term colleagues leaving without the chance to say goodbye and the end of the week pint down the pub. There is no reason why these things can’t return though in a safe and managed environment. We must ensure that Health and Safety in our workplaces is made central to any employer’s planning for the future.
This pandemic has really illustrated who the real key workers are in times of national emergency – alongside NHS staff and other public sector staff it is the retail staff, transport workers and postal delivery staff who have continued to work and enabled society to carry on. We must demand that Sunak and the government don’t proceed with any pay freeze for the public sector or any other section of society. To help businesses get back on their feet particularly in retail and hospitality people need spending power to boost the economy. Sunak will no doubt use the financial deficit to justify this but as Richard Murphy from the Tax Justice Network explains “How many times this week will we hear the lie that the government has borrowed £300bn to pay for Covid? It hasn’t. It has issued debt, but then immediately repurchased it using new money created by the Bank of England. This debt has already been repaid in that case, for good”. Pay freezes and cuts to furlough and universal credit are not necessities arising from an economic crisis – they are a political choice and we must be up for the fight on this.
When Ministers talk of an “acceptable loss of life” they know that the impact will be mainly felt amongst those in care homes, or with disabilities, BAME, Women and LGBT people. Most of all it will be the poorest amongst working class people who once again have to pay the price whilst the wheels of Big Business continue to profit. This is what the Tories mean by returning to business as usual.
We have even seen the need to fight to protect our open spaces as well as more green spaces in inner city areas as people seeking daily exercise or just some short respite from daily incarceration has stretched existing resources to the limit. These are all things we campaign for to aid a better quality of life.
There are many as yet unknown factors such as the effectiveness of the vaccines, the effects of long covid, and new variants which will require planning and consideration too. We can’t rely upon endless cycles of periodic lockdowns and stricter border controls to contain the virus and nor would it be desirable to do so, but it is clear that the Tories can’t be trusted with the general health and well-being of our people.
This is a global pandemic which ultimately requires a global response. An example of this is the recent spat over the distribution of vaccines between the European Union and the large pharmaceutical companies from which neither side emerged with any credit. As long as the drug companies are driven by their profits and individual capitalist nation states exist in competition with each other for essential resources then a truly global response will not be found. Wouldn’t it be better if there was full international co-operation sharing the scientific advances and technology to develop the most effective vaccines, and efforts to combat the virus effectively by working together in collaboration across the globe? Instead, we are looking on in envy at New Zealand’s zero covid strategy or to the approach taken in Cuba where, even in the face of an ongoing US blockade, their production of four vaccines is grounded in science and dedicated to saving the lives of all Cubans, and to international solidarity.
This is why we in Left Unity not only organise within our own union and workplaces to fight for the safety of and better terms and working conditions for our members but also organise as Socialists seeking to provide solutions that place humanity and the wildlife and environment around us as truly the world’s most valuable assets.
Mark is standing in the NEC elections as a member of the Democracy Alliance slate. Click on the image below for more information.