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Editorial: The workplace is still key to Covid transmission

PROFESSOR Chris Whitty is right to emphasise the “appalling” reality of Covid-19 ravaging the country. 

Deaths now exceed 80,000 and the number hospitalised is more than a third higher than in April at the height of the first wave.

This is indeed “everybody’s problem” and Whitty’s emphasis that “any single unnecessary contact you have with someone is a potential link in a chain of transmission that will lead to a vulnerable person” must be heeded.

What is less clear from England’s chief medical officer’s remarks is the direct responsibility of government for this disaster.

Ever since the first lockdown ministers have responded to bad news by blaming the public, implying that there are large numbers of people simply ignoring the rules.

As National Education Union (NEU) general secretary Kevin Courtney has pointed out, there is significantly more movement in public — in terms of both car trips and travel by foot — than in the March lockdown.

This is not down to a lack of individual responsibility. The lockdown itself is “quite lax,” as Professor Sue Michie of Independent Sage has said: a greater range of activities are permitted than in March. 

Nurseries remain open, and workers whose work takes them into other households such as cleaners or tradespeople are “permitted” to carry on working.

Though guidance instructs people to work from home if possible, if they cannot work from home (as is the case with construction workers, for instance) there is no onus on employers to demonstrate that the work is essential — they can continue to require workers to come in.

Even where the government has been forced to act — as it was by education unions when the NEU’s advice to staff that it was not safe to work in schools unless they switched to remote learning prompted the government to back down rather than lose control — it has, whether through callousness or incompetence, undermined the effectiveness of its own measures.

Head teachers’ unions complain that school attendance is in some cases as high as 70 per cent of normal levels. 

Exceptions to allow in-class teaching for vulnerable children and the children of key workers are obviously necessary. 

But ministers’ failure to provide computers or internet access for nearly two million children who don’t have them, coupled with the Department for Education’s clarification that lack of these prerequisites for remote learning puts you in the “vulnerable” category, means that there are far more vulnerable children having to go into school than need have been the case.

And the definition of key workers has expanded since March, with broadly defined categories that allow employers great leeway to decide themselves if their staff are “critical” or not. 

Front-line workers including NHS staff have complained of a lack of school places for their kids because of the number of parents who claim key worker status.

And schools will remain vectors of virus transmission as long as they are sites where hundreds of households mix.

Mass media reports imply this is the fault of selfish parents hogging available places, another win for a Tory divide-and-rule strategy that turns working people against each other.

Less attention is focused on why parents cannot home-school children — perhaps because they have to keep going to work even in non-critical jobs. Many will be on insecure contracts and terrified of losing work.

Halting non-essential work and furloughing workers on full pay are demands the movement should unite around.

It is clear that effective virus suppression depends on a holistic approach to reduce all contact between households to an unavoidable minimum. 

The world of work is currently a gaping hole in the lockdown regulations. It is putting workers at unnecessary risk, undermining the safety of our schools and nurseries, and through them the entire national effort. 

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