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As the lockdown eases who will pay the price?

No worker should be expected to risk their life for a wage — the unions are calling for a whole range of measures to be enforced to protect the members before the return to work, writes HELEN O'CONNOR, southern regional organiser GMB

THERE is no method to eliminate Covid-19. There are no imminent plans to release a vaccine so the risk to public health is still present and significant.

It doesn’t take an expert to tell us that while the virus is still in circulation and workplaces start to fill up the transmission rate of the virus will again increase. The death rates of those in vulnerable groups, care home workers, NHS workers and other low-paid workers will rise once again.

Damning statistics from ONS show that lower-paid and BAME workers are most likely to die from the virus.

In the meantime furlough arrangements are now going to come under increasing strain. The trade unions won a significant victory in getting these arrangements extended until the end of October.

The fly in the ointment is that after June companies will be required to contribute towards furlough costs. While some businesses may stump up some of the cash many won’t and will see protecting their profits as their top priority. Many smaller enterprises will simply go out of business.

What this will lead to is furloughed workers coming under increased pressure to return back to work after this fully government funded furlough period ends.

GMB members are among the key workers who know what the reality of working through this pandemic really means as they are the key workers who have been keeping Britain running for weeks. They face a battle with with employers to keep themselves and their families safe during this crisis.

Many have had no PPE or had to fight to get PPE, some have become very unwell and others have died in the line of duty. We know that this virus destroys health, lives and families because we are in contact with people who are already dealing with this reality.

Given the delays and botched planning that has characterised the national preparations for this pandemic and have led to the colossal death toll, who can have any confidence that any serious thought and planning has gone into easing the lockdown? Initiating the lockdown was the easy bit — lifting the lockdown won’t be.

Health and safety union reps recognise that there are always risks in any job but getting back to “business as usual” would be misguided and dangerous. We are facing an unknown, highly contagious disease that can cause disability and death.

This is why the unions are calling for a whole range of measures to be taken before the lockdown is lifted because protecting life and human health is just as important as protecting jobs. No worker should be expected to risk their life while at work.

We should be mindful of how we treat the vulnerable and those in nursing homes and hospitals as one day any of us might end up needing care. We would not wish to be seen as disposable under those circumstances.

Johnson’s address to the nation on May 10 made clear that this government was pushing for workers to take their chances and return to work as the “stay at home” message was dropped and Wednesday was announced as the day when work would resume. Johnson has been widely commended for recovering from the virus because he is a “fighter” and he is ‘“fit and strong.”

It was even reported that he “refused the offer of a ventilator” in ITU. This “survival of the fittest” subtext is completely in line with the real strategy they are pursuing which is “herd immunity.”

This rhetoric is deeply disturbing for workers and particularly for those in a vulnerable group and these ideas can have no place in a free, diverse and democratic country.

It now seems as though the onus and responsibility for controlling the virus has been put back onto working people, particularly the low paid, who would have little choice but to attend a workplace and then be blamed for spreading coronavirus.

Johnson urges the nation to use “British common sense” in the same way that Jacob Rees Mogg said that Grenfell residents should have used their “common sense” to flee the Grenfell Tower fire.

All unions will have had keyworker members giving invaluable feedback on the perils of working throughout this pandemic. They must be heard loud and clear by government around easing lockdown. The unions and all workers must be listened to in the debate about the nations finances.

GMB members — many of whom have not had a pay rise that keeps pace with inflation for more than a decade — have worked hard, changed their ways of working and been on the frontline of a highly dangerous situation with no training and unclear and confused guidance.

Our members have already been failed at all levels. Far from giving them the pay rise and fair conditions they need and deserve, this Tory government is now making plans to ensure that all workers, including keyworkers, pay a large part of the bill for this national emergency.

Working people have already paid for this crisis, some with their lives or the lives of their families and we already know they will not take kindly to being asked to pick up the financial burden for this crisis in the form of further pay freezes.

In the 2008 crisis working people were coerced into paying for the crisis created by the banks through cuts, privatisation and austerity. Let’s give a very clear warning to the Tories — not again.

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