First of all, I hope you, your families, your colleagues and your friends are all staying safe and keeping well.
This week I have been speaking to branch secretaries across the South East, starting with our health branches, to make sure that we, as a region, offer the best support and assistance during this time. The stories I have heard from the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis have been truly harrowing.
I have heard of large–scale redeployments, with many activists now working directly on Covid wards and in Intensive Care Units. Exhaustion was a recurring theme with case after case of people working longer and harder than they have ever done before. People also told me about the pace of change, with one ICU expanding from 6 beds to 136 in a matter of days.
One branch secretary spoke of the number of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s with no underlying health conditions currently on ventilators, another about the way the virus seems to attack different ethnicities more viciously.
Perhaps the most disturbing reports were of the number of NHS staff currently under the care of the hospitals they would normally be working in. As I write this, headlines are circulating of over 100 health and care workers who have died as a result of Covid-19. But the unreported number is the vast scale of frontline workers who have contracted the virus and require hospital admission.
Several people I spoke to talked of how increased exposure to the virus seemed to increase the severity of the illness, a term known as ‘viral load’. Whatever the science of this, I was truly moved by the sacrifices being made by many UNISON members right now.
And it’s important to remember there are many unsung heroes who aren’t getting the same level of media attention right now. So a special shout out to our members in Police & Justice branches at the frontline of the lockdown, keeping response centres operating and encouraging the public to stay at home.
The decision of our frontline workers to keep going to work, day after day, is a phenomenal act of bravery, and something which everyone needs to be truly grateful for.
UNISON again supported yesterday evening’s ‘Clap for Carers’, as people across the nation came out of their houses to say thank you. UNISON has led the call for a minute’s silence, next Tuesday, 28 April at 11am, on International Workers Memorial Day, to remember all workers that have lost their lives at work and especially during this crisis.
I also commend the actions of Captain Tom Phillips, along with the hundreds of thousands of people that donated, in helping raise almost £30m for NHS Charities Together. Nobody can doubt his sincerity or admiration for health and care workers. However, our role as a trade union is to ensure now and beyond this crisis that our health and social care services are properly funded and not reliant upon charity.
So all of the clapping and charity fundraising is not enough. Not nearly enough.
Clapping alone will not keep you safe from this disease, not when the government has allowed stocks of PPE to all but run out. UNISON has called again and again for adequate and appropriate protective equipment and our PPE alert is still live for any worker who has concerns about what they have been told by their employer.
Clapping alone does not recognise that out members, public service workers, really are the fabric that holds our society together. That’s why I’m supporting the call to abolish all student debt for healthcare students who have answered the call to work in wards during the crisis, as the least we can do.
Clapping alone will not support you emotionally when we are through this crisis. One of the things that struck me most during my telephone calls was the need for proper counselling and support for workers on the frontlines now and when the crisis is over, and this is something I am feeding back to the most senior levels of our union.
Clapping alone will not recognise the heroic things done by so many people to keep everyone else safe and healthy. A fundamental change is needed in our society, where the role of essential workers is properly valued and acknowledged. This needs to start with pay, especially in the care sector where this crisis has exposed just how many of the most vital workers in our society are scandalously paid only the bare legal minimum.
Covid-19 is without a doubt the worst crisis we have faced in my lifetime, but is also showing us the very best in humanity. UNISON members, you are showing us the very best of humanity. It’s now time to refocus on how that can be recognised properly.
It’s been humbling to hear your stories. Thank you for everything you are doing. You are all our heroes.
Are you a key worker with a story to share about what’s happening in your workplace in the fight against Covid-19? The we want to hear from you so we can celebrate you, our heroes, and everything you’re doing.