Opinion

Unions could have helped to avoid this ‘pingdemic’ mess – but no one asked them

Last week, as the country was hitting peak “pingdemic”, I met key workers, in places ranging from food plants to care homes, in Manchester. They had been clapped and thanked many times, including by the prime minister. But they told me they still didn’t feel valued – and not just over their pay.

Time and again, ministers have launched schemes from their desks in Westminster that profoundly impact health, safety and lives without ever asking the views of workers and their unions. Dealing with the economic chaos caused by workers in critical sectors being pinged by the NHS app is just the latest example.

These are people who have gone into work right through the pandemic, putting in exhausting extra shifts and sleeping separately to keep their families safe. They are fed up of being taken for granted, and patience is running out.

With the notable exception of the successful furlough scheme, ministers have been notoriously unwilling to consult unions or business properly. The latest proposals have been to create exemptions for self-isolation for essential workers – so they could come in to work and keep services running. This could have gained the support of unions and employers alike – if there had been a chance to help design the scheme. After all, workers want to protect their safety and livelihoods. They understand how their industries and supply chains work better than Whitehall. And nobody wants to see the lights go out.

If unions have not rushed to rubber-stamp the government’s exemption scheme, ministers only have themselves to blame. They should have consulted business and unions in the weeks before England moved to step 4 with its “freedom day” last week. But they were more interested in negotiating with hard-right libertarians on the Conservative backbenches.

The exemption scheme has often seemed like it is being made up on the hoof for broadcast interviews. And the list of those who might not have to self-isolate grew again yesterday – from the rail signallers and air traffic control staff announced by ministers on 19 July, to roles in emergency services, border control and other transport sectors.

The application process is bureaucratic and opaque, requiring employers to individually contact government departments and seek permission to exempt named workers. It’s a recipe for chaos and confusion – and one that could have been avoided. Workers are keen not to inadvertently infect their colleagues or be exposed to infection themselves.

With the right consultation, we could have anticipated the risk of staff shortages from a rise in self-isolation. And businesses and unions could have advised government how best to prevent the surge in self-isolation and mitigate its impact.

First, the spread of infection could have been slowed. But ministers relaxed the rules recklessly on 19 July. Face coverings should have remained a legal requirement in all enclosed workplaces to help keep everyone safe. Shop workers, already subject to abusive and aggressive behaviour, are dismayed that they must now police the use of masks and other commonsense public health measures that ministers now deem a matter of “personal choice” for people in England.

What’s more, the government published inadequate guidance on safe working just two working days before the restrictions changed. And ministers have still failed to task the Health and Safety Executive with proactive enforcement – meaning that not one employer has been prosecuted for a breach of Covid workplace safety rules. The upshot is that many workplaces risk becoming less safe, and sites where the virus is transmitted.

Second, for self-isolation to play its part in controlling the virus, it must be a realistic option for all. But the government’s failure to pay decent sick pay to everyone, at a rate they can live on, means people can’t afford to self-isolate.

Just last week ministers went back on their promise to make all workers eligible for sick pay – leaving 2 million people without cover if they have to isolate. This is a political choice. Giving everyone access to statutory sick pay would cost less than 1% of the test-and-trace scheme. And it would make a major contribution to containing transmission.

Third, ministers should urgently restore free lateral flow tests to employers for staff. They are an essential part of containing infections. With firms having to pay for them, use will drop off. Without comprehensive lateral flow testing, we could have a dangerous situation of actual infections rising while identified infections fall.

And finally, the government has an obligation to ensure that individual workers understand what the scheme means for them and their legal rights to be safe at work.

It’s not too late for ministers to come to the table with unions and employers to work out how to improve the scheme and keep the services we all rely on running. Working people have earned that respect and a fair hearing.

 

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