The vital glue that holds communities together

I hope this email finds you safe and well ahead of the last bank holiday of Spring. I know that many of you will be working throughout, but for those that are able to take some time off, I hope you manage to have an enjoyable and well-deserved break (with appropriate social distancing obviously!)  

I’m sure, like me, you’ve been reading in the press over this past week of teachers opposed to the proposals to reopen schools on 1 June. I’ve been frustrated by the lazy journalism that ignores the fact that schools are currently open or the contribution and vital work of the rest of the school team. Let’s not forget the learning support assistants, school escorts, catering staff, site managers and cleaners, the school administration staff, all of whom play an invaluable role in the education of all our children. UNISON members in schools are justifiably concerned, and their union is right behind them, about the government’s plans to increase pupil numbers.   

It cannot be right that in every other frontline setting where social distancing isn’t possible PPE is recommended, but in schools it is not! Schools are no different to any other workplace, I don’t understand why the Government thinks they are. I along with many schools staff can only conclude that the current Govt advice on PPE in schools is simply not fit for purpose and will leave staff at risk.  

We need as a matter of urgency, a full national programme of testing, tracking and tracing. The government must heed the warnings from other countries such as France that have seen Covid-19 cases rise after reopening schools. Without a comprehensive test, track and trace programme our schools’ staff are at risk of becoming the new frontline in a second wave of the pandemic. Something which absolutely nobody wants, but the government is in danger of sleepwalking into.    

Since the Prime Minister made his announcement about the roadmap out of lockdown, a huge number of members that live with people who are shielding and extremely vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19 have been contacting the union, anxious about returning to frontline work. It might be possible for some people to socially distance where they live. But for so many of us, this will be practically impossible. We’ve seen examples of care workers camping at work to stop the virus spreading and protect their families at home. While I commend the action, it’s a sign of a failing system that allows this to happen in the first place. UNISON is challenging employers up and down the region to do more to support and protect workers in this worrying situation, and I encourage any members concerned about this to contact their branch.     

We’re also now seeing stories being ‘floated’ in the right-wing media about a return to austerity once the current crisis is over. Make no mistake, these supposed news articles were there to ‘test the water’ of public opinion. The right-wing press is all too happy to promote clapping one day and return to arguing for pay freezes and public sector cuts the next. We must keep repeating our message that public services are the vital glue that holds communities and our country together. As a society, we owe a huge debt to the key workers who have kept us all safe and well.   

During this crisis, it’s become obvious how poorly society has valued our social care system. The parity of esteem for people working in this sector with colleagues in other areas of our public services and beyond has been absent for too long. There are now over 10,000 confirmed deaths of residents in our nation’s care homes, with the virus having the worst impact in care homes here in the South East. We now know that care workers are more likely than other occupational groups to contract and die from the virus too. In short, this crisis has exposed – with tragic consequences – a social care system that’s totally unfit for purpose. A complete overhaul is needed once the pandemic passes and UNISON will be at the forefront of arguing for this.    

We have to rebuild our society on the ideals and values that have become obvious to all during the pandemic: the need for a properly funded health and social care system, quality public services there when you need them most, and appreciation and recognition for everyone working in these areas.    

Thank you again for all you are doing to support UNISON members during this crisis. The actions of our reps are in some cases quite literally saving lives and the importance of acting collectively has perhaps never been as important as it is today.  

Enjoy the long weekend, stay safe and well.  

Steve Torrance | Regional Secretary