Light at the end of a tunnel

As we look forward to brighter days where our lives are no longer dominated by COVID, we will be picking up the pieces for many years to come

It was a pleasure to see so many delegates at the Regional Council AGM at the weekend. As the most significant democratic event of the regional calendar, the challenge to deliver this virtually during lockdown was no mean feat. Still, thanks to work behind the scenes, it was a positive experience for all. This year’s virtual AGM saw a record number of delegates participating, many for the first time. Whilst we look forward to the time when we can meet again face to face, the technology embraced during the pandemic has shown many advantages for our democratic events.

We welcomed our new General Secretary, Christina McAnea, to the meeting and heard motions from around the region, which will help shape our campaigning over the coming year.

We also learnt of the horrific conditions at the asylum detention centre at Napier Barracks in Kent, where COVID outbreaks have made living conditions unsafe and unbearable for very vulnerable refugees. If you judge a society on how it treats its most vulnerable, then this government has a lot to learn about society.

I’m sure many parents will be relieved to hear that their children will be returning to school on March 8. However, this relief is sure to be tinged with a degree of anxiety, both for parents and for UNISON members working in schools. This week, UNISON called on the government to reconsider their ‘big bang’ reopening of schools in favour of a safer, more staggered approach.

The opening of schools is the first step towards returning to life as we knew it a year ago, before COVID-19 dominated every aspect of our lives. My initial thoughts upon hearing the Govt announcement on Monday of the ‘roadmap’, was that it finally looks more thought through. A lot will depend upon what the government does with the data, rather than being fixated on dates. There is definitely a more positive feeling in the air, one of light at the end of a tunnel; let’s hope it does not turn out to be an oncoming train.

We shall, without doubt, be picking up the pieces following the pandemic for many years to come. It has highlighted inequality, shone a spotlight on the broken care system and exposed a lack of adequate support for mental health services and those with learning disabilities. Once again, it has taken a celebrity, Jo Whiley, to highlight how adults with learning disabilities have been forgotten during the crisis.

Next week brings the budget, and UNISON is calling on the Chancellor to make it a workers budget, prioritising proper investment in public services and a decent wage for care workers. The TUC will be holding a virtual rally ahead of the budget, on the evening of March 2. After over a decade of austerity, and a pandemic that has highlighted the importance of public services, there must be no attempts to balance the books on the back of public sector workers.

The high court ruled this week that health secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when failing to publish the details of PPE contracts awarded during the early months of the pandemic. This is vast amounts of public money, spent without proper scrutiny, riddled with government cronyism. Hancock has tried to brush this off, which gives us little confidence in handing more powers over the NHS to government ministers, as tabled in the recent White Paper.

Finally, thank you to the activists and colleagues within the UNISON family who have sent messages of condolence following the death of my son, Sam. Our family are overcome with grief, and there are few words to describe the emptiness I currently feel. Yet, the messages have given comfort amidst overwhelming sadness, and they are deeply appreciated.

RIP Sam.