After a year of COVID, what have we learned?

This week marked a whole year since the country went into lockdown as COVID-19 surged across the UK. In that year, we have seen the government repeatedly mismanage the situation, ignoring the Govt advisory group SAGE warnings until they had no option but to act. Over 126,000 lives have been lost. As the nation fell silent on Tuesday to reflect on the events of the past year, UNISON called for a full public enquiry at the earliest opportunity to ensure that lessons are learned and importantly that further deaths are prevented.

It’s been a year like no other. A year that has highlighted the importance of UNISON members as key workers and shone a spotlight on a broken care system, as the most vulnerable in society and those who care for them struggled to access PPE, and adequate sick pay to enable them to self isolate. A year where it was clear to us early on that Black workers were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but we watched on as the government failed to address this in a timely way. And a year where the nation came out on their doorsteps to clap NHS and care workers, whilst the government proposed a miserly 1% pay offer to NHS staff.

Many UNISON members have been working on the frontline throughout the pandemic, in hospitals, schools, across all emergency services, utilities, councils and care homes. But for some UNISON members, this week marks a year since they gathered up their laptops and set up an office on the end of the kitchen table, never thinking they would still be there a year later. There has been a fundamental shift to the way we work, a year-long experiment in remote working. As the country unlocks over the next few months, discussions are now turning to ‘agile’ work patterns and restructures and redundancy, as many employers look to how they are going to balance a year of drastically reduced incomes. Whilst we hope that we are past the darkest of days for cases and deaths, it will be a long time before the country and the economy fully recover from this.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling over minimum wage payments for care workers doing sleep-in shifts was a blow to so many and comes after a six-year legal battle on behalf of a UNISON member. Our position remains unchanged. Care workers should be paid in full for their sleep-in shifts. We will continue our government’s pressure to ensure that care workers are paid fairly for every hour of their shift, and will continue our wider fight, for a real ‘living wage’ for care workers.

UNISON is the union for health and social care staff, which is why it is also concerning to hear this week that the government is considering legislation to make Covid vaccines mandatory for care staff. Whilst everyone wants the pandemic to be over, and we would encourage all UNISON members to accept the vaccine when offered, a no jab, no job, law is not the way to deal with workers who may be hesitant about getting the vaccine. Allowing staff paid time off to attend vaccine appointments and a clear information programme that cuts through the anti-vax propaganda is.

I’d like to congratulate the  Frimley Health branch this week, who are celebrating victory following a two year battle to stop the privatisation of the estates and facilities departments. The branch had a very visible campaign in the workplace and attracted much media attention back in 2019, so to hear that the Trust has now dropped its plans for a wholly owned subsidiary is reassuring and should make any other Trust think twice about adopting a similar approach.

As health branches across the union gear up for another ‘Two days for £2k’ next week, The Prime Minister’s comment that the success of the UK’s vaccine programme was down to “capitalism” and “greed” are obscene and wrong. Let’s not forget that Oxford Astra Zeneca is selling their vaccine to the UK at cost and that the incredible vaccine rollout programme is down to a huge effort from the NHS, not the private sector.

As UNISON members in health ask us all to come together to shift the government away from a miserly 1% pay offer, Scotland has led the way in recognising their health staff and awarding  their NHS staff 4%, then surely this government must do more than empty hand gestures and follow suit.

Please support the NHS pay campaign, wherever you work. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, take care and stay safe.