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Photo: Facebook/Keep Our NHS Public

Thank our key workers by listening to what they are saying, says Alia Butt

As we know, the symptoms of lockdown vary depending on your socio-economic status. Those of us with a roof over our head, and food on our table, are lucky (those of us with gardens luckier still). Some of us are enjoying the luxury of working from home, while saving money on travel, and others are counting down the days until they can return to work, so that they can once again afford the basics.

Something that we do all have in common, however, is the reliance (and, for some, faith) in the government's responsible handling of the crisis and delivery of sensible guidelines.

What this crisis has demonstrated is the importance of a certain section of society that has before now been heavily neglected and under-appreciated. The claps for carers and key workers, and the various billboards saluting the NHS, have communicated a new-found compassion and gratitude toward the many working class people who have (always) worked incredibly hard, and continue to do so in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, the claps begin to feel more like slaps in the face when they are paired with discussions of a public sector pay freeze

Suggestions that the only place to find money to manage the economy is from the wage packets of apparently celebrated NHS staff is disgusting, particularly given the revolting pay packages and bonuses received by members of parliament that have recently been further increased. Not only is this deeply insulting and demoralising but it is also a huge betrayal to all those who have continued to work tirelessly to keep the country from collapsing entirely. 

The pressure on teachers to go back to work - and endanger themselves and the children they are teaching - is incomprehensible. In fact, as suggested by 17 Labour MPs in a statement released earlier this month, this is nothing less than a ‘thinly veiled declaration of class war’.

The importance of language

The prime minister’s change of slogan from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’ is a shift from concrete instruction to abstract suggestion. It seems more about shifting the responsibility from the government to the people. We have heard about the ‘selfish hoarders’, the ‘idiots congregating in green spaces’ and workers ‘not social distancing properly on trains’. 

The massive ambiguity around the slogan ‘control the virus’ is contradictory to the previous campaign’s slogan. The implication of the change is that staying at home is not as important as it was before. This change is not about incompetence but about plausible deniability - the government do not want us to stay safe and focus on protecting ourselves but, as Johnson also suggested in his message, the new plan is to get the economy going - no matter what the cost.

The wartime language of heroism used to describe NHS staff can feel ominous. It can be seen as a suggestion that their deaths are warranted in the fight against Covid-19. In actual fact, these are people just like you and me. The difference is that they are being failed by their employers and by the government, who are refusing to protect them; the high death rate amongst medical staff is avoidable yet they continue to refuse to provide PPE and fail to implement a test, trace and isolate system. 

This same language is now being extended to teachers, who are being pressured into returning to work, despite workplaces being critically unsafe, all the while, MPs are ‘alarmed’ at the suggestion that they should themselves get back into parliament. I spoke with a teacher who revealed that, to add insult to murderous intent, he and his colleagues are being encouraged not to wear PPE. He says:

‘My safety and ultimately my life is now considered less important than the drive to get parents back to work. This should come as no surprise, given the cold calculation of a Tory party being leaned on by party donors protecting business interests. But the result is that teachers and all school workers are expected to be ‘heroes’ and put themselves in the line of fire for what amounts to very little. We are clearly considered expendable - and second-class citizens.’

Clapping for key workers serves towards increasing morale. It provides a certain level of psychological support, and encourages workers to feel a sense of appreciation they are not afforded by their employers; a sense of acknowledgement and recognition that is not reflected in their wages or conditions of work. This week it was reported that the government will struggle to impose a public sector pay freeze at a time where millions of people are joining their neighbours in a weekly clap for key workers. 

Deeds not words 

Many people support the idea of fairer pay and better resourcing of the public sector, and this has never been clearer. A shift to something more concrete could massively impact the way society is organised, and possibly result in fairer conditions for all workers. 

Imagine the fear of a doctor who rises in the morning with no idea whether they will contract or pass on a deadly virus to their patients or loved ones. Imagine the fear of a teacher, unsure of whether they will be allowed to keep themselves and their students safe, or whether they will be victim to the tabloids’ latest demonising project. Imagine a mother of a 4 year old, who is being told that should she decide to keep her child safe at home, she is depriving them of a decent education. 

BAME workers are considerably more likely to die from Covid-19, and they are also the workers being forced onto the frontline. Imagine not being able to demand safer working conditions, in an institution already showing contempt and disregard for your life, because you are too afraid to raise these demands, for fear of disciplinary action or losing your job. 

Now is not the time to end lockdown. Now is the time to oppose schools reopening before it is safe for them to do so, and to oppose a public sector pay freeze. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with key workers, many of whom are already back on the Tube, risking their lives, for less than living wage.


Alia Butt is part of NHS Staff Voices, which aims to build a network of NHS workers campaigning for a fully public, better funded national health service. If you work for the NHS, no matter what you do, please get in touch at [email protected]

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