If key workers are expected to keep our economy going during the coronavirus crisis, the least they deserve is proper protection – now is the time for the government to act.
Being designated a ‘key worker’ means that you are essential for the continuation of daily life. Key workers save lives, they keep the country moving. But each day or night as they prepare for work, every key worker (and millions not classified as such) are facing a life choice between what’s right for them and their families and what’s right for the greater good.
Politicians will say we will do whatever it takes. Bosses will say they’ll enforce government and public health authority advice to the letter. But on the frontline, there is no comfort. Weeks into the crisis, there are still far too many key workers not getting the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.
We in the CWU know this from first-hand experience. From Royal Mail, BT and the Post Office to call centres and financial services, our members are expressing their fear and anxiety daily over the lack of PPE.
Like all unions, the CWU is prioritising the health and safety of its members. We have told them if they are fearful of working without sufficient PPE and social distancing in place, then they should not work and we will back them. We have not issued a blanket instruction because the situation is not the same in every workplace – and like our members, we also want to do whatever we can to help the country get through this crisis.
We are also acutely aware that we must work with employers and the government to sustain our members’ jobs and the businesses they work in. Union values are all about giving workers confidence, unity, collectivism and always working for the greater good. But to live by these principles we must also talk more openly about the root of the problems that key workers now face every day of their lives.
At its root the lack of PPE is not a health and safety issue, or a supply one. It’s a result of the political and economic forces that will never prioritise the values the country now needs most.
The incredibly difficult choices key workers now face in our public services comes from a determination to satisfy the whims of the market. But the past few weeks show clearly that it has great human cost.
Nurses aren’t being tested. In some hospitals in London, staff have resorted to wearing bin liners to protect themselves. This should absolutely shame those who have privatised our services in the past decade. At the same time, doctors treating patients suspected of having Covid-19 have posted images online of their equipment being out of date, inadequate, or simply non-existent. Now some doctors have found themselves forced to threaten to quit over their well-founded fears regarding the lack of protective equipment.
This comes on top of revelations that the Department of Health dismissed a call for the purchase of eye protection that is now desperately needed in the fight against coronavirus. The reason? The cost. The documents devastatingly show that expert medical advice was watered down after an “economic assessment” found that providing the safety equipment would have too great a cost implication on the health service.
Those in the transport industry are facing a similar situation. Just the other day, a worker on the Bakerloo line posted a photograph of the hand gel that Transport for London were giving London Underground staff – it was only nine years out of date. What we are seeing across the newly designated ‘key’ workforce, whatever the industry, is that members are being let down.
For me, perhaps the most bizarre situation I have witnessed this week is postal workers without proper PPE being asked by a privatised Royal Mail to prioritise delivering pizza leaflets over the offer the union made to utilise Royal Mail’s unrivalled infrastructure as an additional emergency service.
The truth is privatisation has played a massive part in ensuring that our key workers are not protected properly. Take, for example, those working in social care right now who are not getting the proper equipment from their private sector contractors. The government can hark all it likes about new logistic processes for ensuring the quick delivery of equipment to NHS staff, but it is completely unable to deliver these materials to those privately employed by private care homes or care firms.
Key workers are keeping our country moving. The thanks that is being received from the public, whether it be the public display of clapping for our carers or the cards and notes that our postal members are receiving on a daily basis, are incredibly welcome.
But we need the government to act now. Not just with words, but with actions. If we cannot keep our workers on the frontline safe then we have no chance of turning the tide against this virus. If we truly appreciate those workers on the frontline of this crisis, we must provide them with the armour that they need right now.