Blackburn and District Trades Union Council

Issues arising from COVID-19 pandemic

20/04/2020




Issues arising from COVID-19 pandemic

WMD

Trades Council delegates and observers held an informal discussion on Thursday 16th April, using “Zoom” (the online conference facility).

The purpose was to discuss issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, encompassing both the general picture and how it was affecting local workplaces.

Delegates were in a variety of circumstances. Some were on furlough, some were working from home, some were still attending their workplaces, and some were “shielding”. Across the board, though, it was felt that it was now much more difficult for Branches to maintain lines of communication with members and with each other.

We have been trying through our Facebook Page to bring information to the attention of local Trade Union reps. Colleagues are reminded that it can also be used for feedback. Whilst the Trades Council cannot intervene in every circumstance, delegates often find it helpful to know how other employers and Branches are approaching things.

The “Zoom” facility is handy, if you have access to IT at home – though we have seen a claim that some user account details have been posted on the dark web. Mind you, anyone eavesdropping on us is more likely to be traumatised than enriched. We do intend to use it again for a Trades Council conversation on the 14th May, and possibly also in respect of Workers Memorial Day before then.

TUC Trade Union Education at Blackburn College also intends to begin the courses scheduled for the Summer term on an online basis, with face-to-face classes possibly resuming later if restrictions are relaxed. With the closure of the Burnley unit this is now the only TUC Trade Union education available in East Lancashire.

If any reps want to apply for a course, they can still contact the office number - 01254 292262 - and leave a message. Alternatively, they can ring Alan McShane on his mobile number - 07963 468771 - or email him on a.mcshane@blackburn.ac.uk or amcshane055@gmail.com

Issues around Covid-19 generally seem to fall within three broad areas: how much confidence can we have in our Government’s handling of the matter; what are the current workplace issues; and what will happen in the aftermath.

At this stage, any assessment of the Government’s handling of the pandemic needs to be tempered by caveats. No one has had much in the way of precedent to rely on; comparisons between countries are fraught with difficulty because there may be differences in the way information is being collected, in underlying population morbidities and in population densities and distribution; and we have yet to see how differing approaches will prove to play out in the long run. Much media reporting gives gross figures unrelated to the differing population sizes of different countries and in geographically large states, like China and the USA, there have been variations across the territory. There remain places where the virus has yet to take hold, yet its future impact in them could be a further source of backwash into countries already once affected.

A key determinant will be whether the virus can be brought under control by public health measures before a vaccine in developed.

Amongst countries where the virus had definitely got some degree of foothold, as of 19th April (see tables) Britain stood relatively mid table in terms of the number of cases per million of population.

WMD

We seemed, however, to be in the higher rank when it comes to the percentage of cases resulting in death.

And so we also ranked 5th in terms of numbers of deaths per million of population.

It is worth repeating that further refinement might, in the course of time, change these comparisons or provide explanations that we have yet to consider. We don’t, for instance, have much idea as to how many “unreported” cases countries might be carrying – information that could affect both of these tables.

There do, nevertheless, appear to be four areas in which we should be asking questions about the performance of the British government so far.

1)
Why was the country not better prepared? We know, for instance, that there was a three-day pandemic training exercise in October 2016 and that it seems to have prompted some concerns about our potential resilience – yet the details of this, and of what action it resulted in (if any) remain obscure. We also know that clinicians from China were, by January 2020, warning colleagues in other countries that “preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources” (The Lancet -Jan 31, 2020).

2)
Was the Government initially lackadaisical in its approach to the implementation of public health measures and, if so, why? There are certainly a number of qualified and respectable figures like Professor Anthony Costello, Professor Helen Ward and Professor Sir David King who have questioned the alacrity of the Government's initial response to the pandemic. Prior to the announcement of a “lockdown” the Guardian, on March 10th, reported that: “The government was accused of playing roulette with the public by the editor of the Lancet medical journal. Dr Richard Horton called for the “urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies”.

There appear to be quite several different possible explanations, and maybe the outcome resulted from a mix of them.

It has been suggested that early medical advice misconstrued COVID-19 as a type of ‘flu and that “the scientists whose advice guided Downing Street did not clearly signal their worsening fears to the public or the government. Until March 12, the risk level, set by the government’s top medical advisers on the recommendation of the scientists, remained at “moderate,” suggesting only the possibility of a wider outbreak” (Reuters, 7th April).

There has been a suggestion that the Government was initially committed to one strategy, referred to as “herd immunity”, before switching course when the prediction for the number of consequent deaths became clearer.

A claim has been made that the Prime Minister fell into a period of idleness and distraction: “Last week, a senior adviser to Downing Street broke ranks and blamed the weeks of complacency on a failure of leadership in cabinet. In particular, the prime minister was singled out. “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”” (The Times, 18th April).

But there is also a possibility that the Prime Minister’s known predilection for bluff optimism led him to adopt a view that people were over-reacting and that the country should not be defected from getting on with its business. This was certainly the gist of comments made in a bizarre speech he made at the Guildhall on February 3rd: “we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other”.

3)
Why did Britain decide to abandon testing and tracing contacts just before it entered full “lockdown”? Is it not the case that such measures are what the World Health Organisation have been advocating and are what have borne fruit, so far, in some other countries?

4)
How has there come to be such a problem with providing Personal Protective Equipment to workers in the Health and Social Care sectors? Was the Guardian accurate to report, on March 30th, that: “British officials took part in four meetings where EU projects to bulk-buy medical kit were discussed – the earliest in January, according to official minutes that heap doubt on government claims of missing an email” , and on April 13th that: “Britain missed three opportunities to be part of an EU scheme to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves and has been absent from key talks about future purchases”.

Has there been any strategic thought given to how to protect those in residential care homes?

Has privatisation contributed to the current supply problems in the NHS?

Trade Union attention is now, understandably, very much focussed on a complex range of immediate issues affecting people at work.

Many Unions have set up dedicated, often industry-focussed, websites dealing with COVID-19 issues. The National Shop Stewards Network has compiled this handy list of links to where TUC-affiliated unions have dedicated sections or pages of their websites to coronavirus/Covid-19 advice (we have not checked every link):

NSSN List




WMD

The following appear to be the main issues challenging local reps now.

1)
The provision of PPE in Health and Social Care settings.

2)
What preventative measures need to be taken when workers in other sectors need to be at work.

3)
Are businesses continuing to work when really it would be better if they put staff on furlough? (And we recognise that this might be a point at which there could be tension between reps and members).

4)
Is the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) adequate and understood and are firms laying off workers when they should be putting them on furlough?

5)
Could businesses do more to “top up” JRS payments, especially for the low paid?

6)
How, if at all, has wage protection worked for those in insecure employment, such as those on 0-hours and in involuntary self-employment?

The pandemic will clearly put a large strain on economies all over the world. Governments face having increased debt in a context of diminished revenues.

Our assessment of Britain’s economic prospects was apprehensive even prior to the pandemic and we do not share the Government’s view that the economy is fundamentally “sound”. Growth has been slow, poverty and insecure employment rife, many workers have negligible savings, household debt is a widespread issue and average real wages rose above their pre-financial crisis level for the first time only at the beginning of this year. Economies the world over have been using monetary stimuli almost to the point of exhaustion. Post-Brexit Britain will remain particularly affected by what happens with the European Union – but growth in the Eurozone has also recently been weak and there must be doubts as to whether the Union will be able to muster significant and comprehensive plans for reconstruction.

The Low Pay Commission has already said that the cost of fighting the pandemic endangers the Government’s medium term flagship pledge to raise national living wage to £10.50 an hour.

Prem Sikka has written that the IFS recommended a delay in the rise and even a “temporary cut” in minimum wages” and that the Social Market Foundation is recommending that the Government end the “triple lock” on pensions: “the SMF proposes that the triple-lock should be replaced with a “double lock” by removing the promised 2.5% rise. The SMF claims that this change would reduce government expenditure by around £4bn a year”.









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