The media's attempt to blame the public for the virus has left out the voices of those who are having to work during lockdown, so we asked some of them to tell us about their experiences
Distribution centre worker
Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, implores us all to stay at home to save lives and help the NHS, but he and Boris Johnson have conveniently overlooked the tens of thousands of non-essential workers moving around the UK every day. These non-essential workers risk contracting and spreading Covid-19, and we have no choice but to put ourselves through this every day. If we don’t go to work, we face unemployment and the torture that is Universal Credit.
I am one of those workers employed in a large distribution centre for an online/high street retailer. I’m fit and healthy, as is my partner but my mental health is tested every day.
We risk our health in the workplace. The company I work for do provide masks, gloves and plenty of hand sanitiser points. They have notices around advising you that the wearing of a face covering and gloves is mandatory unless you are exempt on medical grounds. The facility is regularly inspected by the local council to ensure these measures are being enforced.
This all sounds good but some of the work we do requires us to be in an enclosed space handling heavy equipment with colleagues, it would be impossible for an individual to socially distance in this environment, but extra PPE is not provided, or risk assessments carried out. Our office is a windowless, airless space used 24 hours a day by revolving shifts which means up to 10-15 individuals use the same space as you do.
The company have strict rules in place around Health and Safety, security and timekeeping which are implemented swiftly when needed. They have a code of conduct which must be signed, and breaches of this code are met with well laid out disciplinary procedures. But when it comes to Covid-19 there is no effort to protect us. If a colleague is self-isolating awaiting the results of a Covid test or after a positive test, there is no information passed to their colleagues or any rules regarding their colleagues having to have a Covid test or to self-isolate.
Colleagues who do self-isolate are only entitled to Statutory Sick Pay leading to financial hardship in many cases as workers are normally on minimum wage. Who would volunteer to inflict hardship upon their families?
I believe there should have been legislation from the government many months ago to incorporate Covid-19 protections into Health and Safety laws. The TUC and the Labour party should have been demanding this from the beginning. Many of the workers in my industry aren’t members of a union - and for those who are, their unions aren’t recognised by the employers. Many companies think they are fulfilling their obligations with a well-placed hand sanitiser and a poster. They are paying lip service to the rules and aren’t doing anything for their customers or workers beyond this and will not unless they are threatened with legal action. This is the only language they understand.
Personally, I feel really lucky to have been working through this pandemic. Having a steady income and the daily interaction with friends and colleagues in real life and not via zoom in a home office has been a blessing.
Unlike many frontline workers, generally speaking, work in the Fire and Rescue Service has been less busy during the pandemic. Our training courses were cancelled during the initial lockdown and since then only safety-critical training has restarted. And while we have been able to conduct some high-risk home fire safety checks, this daily part of our work has stopped to protect us and members of the public from the virus. Of course on-station training and our core function of responding to emergencies has continued as normal.
The main thing that working as a firefighter in the Fire and Rescue Service throughout the pandemic has highlighted to me and I am sure many others is how minimal staffing numbers leaves the service with very little to no resilience. Despite reducing our contact with the public and other colleagues to a minimum, there have been huge gaps left in the workforce due to sickness with the virus and absence due to contact isolation. During the peaks of the virus, the service has continued only due to the willingness of firefighters to work large amounts of overtime, and even then, fire engines have been off the run due to lack of staffing leaving dangerous gaps in emergency cover.
Initially, like the government, management was slow to get to grips with new protocol that would have kept the workforce safer and seemed keen to try and pursue a business as usual approach that without the presence of a strong union would have potentially gone ahead putting firefighters at far more risk. Now supplies in masks and sanitisers are well stocked on station but changes were slow to happen and some beneficial changes to policy never happened in our Service.
The FBU did a great job in March last year negotiating an agreement which would allow firefighters to volunteer for pandemic-based duties such as driving ambulances, delivering food and medicines and moving bodies, but unfortunately due to limited firefighter numbers, there were not many that could be spared for this work whilst maintaining emergency cover.
Sadly, last week National Fire Service Employers and the National Fire Chiefs Council scrapped this agreement and left negotiations with the FBU over continued safety measures. As a result, there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering Covid-19 duties leaving those volunteers and colleagues back on station at unnecessary risk. Hopefully, this can be resolved soon, so those able and willing to help can do so safely.
What’s it like working on the frontline during Covid-19?
Heartbreaking. That’s what.
I sat with a lady last week who sobbed for her daughter who was unable to visit her due to the crisis. This was heartbreaking enough on its own, but in addition, I'm not able to do the things I would usually do to console her - the duties not outlined in my job description - like giving her hug. But of course I can’t, our infection control measures don’t allow it.
I have cared for two separate patients this week. Confused and scared individuals with degenerative mental health wanting only to see and return home to their familiar faces and surroundings but instead trapped in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people telling them that they can't leave for reasons not comprehended by them.
Meanwhile, staff are overworked, exhausted and equally as despondent with the lockdown as everyone else. Staff are trying their best to do their jobs to the best of their ability; in the face of abusive and frustrated members of the public, the usual limited resources that NHS workers have been used to for years, and families at home that they also care for.
But we keep coming because that's what we do. We care.
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