This week has been, by far, the most shocking of the pandemic so far. This week, the UK death toll has exceeded 100,000, and new daily cases are still around 50,000 each day. The new strains of the virus are running rampant through the country, and the vaccine cannot come soon enough.
As the vaccine rollout is ramped up over the next few weeks, UNISON is calling on the government to include school and early years staff in the priority list of those workers for vaccination, as they continue to work through this third lockdown. Faced with many more children eligible to attend schools and nurseries, these key workers are in close contact with so many people. Meanwhile, I empathise with many parents at home with children struggling to juggle working from home and homeschooling.
The start of 2021 has seen a significant influx of new members join the union all across the region, driven once again by the government’s shambolic handling of events. These new members, almost exclusively school staff, have turned to UNISON, for advice and support when the government failed them, we cannot and will not let them down.
It was clear before Christmas that the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases meant that more restrictions and school closures would be necessary, but once again the government chose to dither and delay, leaving unions no choice but to force their hand. This has been typical of the government’s approach throughout, in either making the wrong decision or making the right decision, three weeks too late!
We are just a couple of weeks into 2021, and already the government has made several U-turns, most recently over free school meal provision. It is shameful that it has taken celebrities such as Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe, to force the government to act. The quality of these so-called ‘food hampers’ in the news is worse than is served to convicts in prisons. Once again proof, if needed, that giving contracts like this to private companies simply do not work. Profit should not be put before the delivery of quality meals to families in need.
It gives me great pleasure to congratulate our new general secretary, Christina McAnea, the first woman to lead a union of a million women. Promising to work across all sectors in the union, Christina has long recognised the importance of a national care service, a priority for us in the South East region. She takes the reins of the union at one of the most challenging times in recent history, but thanks to the legacy left by Dave Prentis, the union is bigger and in a stronger position than ever before.
It is looking increasingly likely that that local elections planned for May 2021, will be once again deferred until later in the year. I note with some irony that America can (and thankfully have) elected a new President during a pandemic. Still, we haven’t been able to arrange for local elections to take place! However, the most important thing right now has to be the safety of the public and election staff, as the virus continues to surge.
UNISON members and activists in the NHS are experiencing the most challenging period of their working life right now, and once again, I cannot thank you enough for all that you are doing to care for COVID patients, on top of what is always the busiest time of the year in the NHS. In Scotland, NHS and social care workers have already received a £500 pay rise at the end of 2020, ahead of the 2021/22 pay talks. We must continue to campaign for a significant pay rise for NHS workers across all grades, in recognition of their selfless dedication and hard work through these unprecedented times.
Whatever you are doing and wherever you are, please look after yourselves, your families and colleagues.