Diary of a Pandemic Shop Steward 2022

When I last wrote a diary entry, it was the autumn of 2020. This was shortly before management planned to start bringing staff back to the office, despite my concerns about our workplace, not being Covid secure – but events intervened. By Joseph Healy.


Source > Transform Network

In late 2020, the Alpha variant appeared, and case rates began to rocket once again. As we entered 2021 and the hospitalisations and deaths soared, we continued working remotely. This was not easy for a variety of reasons, and soon mental health and stress-related problems started to appear. Sickness rates rose and in several conversations with my members it became obvious that the long lockdown and the increasing anxiety was taking a toll on their mental health. As a union representative, I tried to provide as much encouragement and support as possible. 

With the arrival of spring, the situation improved. Younger workmates began to go out to parks and gyms again and the good weather improved the situation considerably. Meanwhile the links between ventilation and the airborne nature of the virus were becoming more and more obvious as I had argued from the start. My employer made no effort to bring people back to the workplace – it appeared they didn’t want to be overtaken by events again. However, this is exactly what happened. In April 2021 the Delta variant emerged in India. The scenes on the news were apocalyptic with bodies being burnt in pyres and people fighting over oxygen cylinders. At that time, Boris Johnson wanted a trade deal with India, following the UK’s desperate attempts to get trade deals after Brexit. The air routes with India remained open for way too long despite scientists appealing to the government to introduce travel restrictions immediately. The UK became the epicentre of the Delta variant in Europe, just like it was later to become the epicentre of Omicron.

Restrictions (such as masks on public transport and indoors, etc.) were not lifted as the number of cases rose dramatically. In the interim, the Executive of my union had decided in June to meet in the union’s shiny new HQ in Birmingham in person, which I found decidedly risky. After the meeting several Executive members tested positive and at least one was hospitalised. I also argued at my union committee meetings that all meetings should be at least hybrid to ensure that disabled and clinically vulnerable members like me could be included. After all, inclusion – not exclusion – had to be at the heart of my union (UNITE, the largest trade union in the UK). This was agreed by the Executive and all union meetings became hybrid.

As the summer of 2021 wore on it was clear that more and more staff were returning to the offices of the other organisations in our building. Later, I realised that the only reason that my workplace, unlike others, still had people predominantly working remotely was because we were unionised and that I had held back any attempts to go back to anything but a Covid-secure workplace.

The football fever of the Euro 2020 in July led to a huge rise in cases as younger people gathered in large groups in bars and many who attended football matches were also infected. Johnson’s libertarian government finally removed all restrictions on the infamous “Freedom Day” in late July. Mask wearing had already reduced considerably on public transport and in indoor settings but now it fell away almost completely. By this point, we negotiated with the Director of my organisation to introduce an official Homeworking Policy. This was agreed and the Equalities Rep proofed the document, ensuring that staff would not be penalised in any way by for choosing to work at home or in the office and guaranteeing that considerations like age, disability and caring responsibilities would all be taken into account. This was a major breakthrough.

Next, we tackled the Health and Safety and the Risk Assessments. The Director agreed that the Risk Assessments for the building were totally inadequate, and we pointed out that our offices would need air filtration units, as in the cold weather it would be impossible to work with the small windows open. 

In the interim, it appeared that many charities were facing financial shortfalls, even though in the UK, charities like mine are essential for disabled people. We help them access social security benefits, exercise and engage in sport, and employ their own support staff for social care. Due to their financial situation, they had decided to get rid of their offices entirely. Instead, they planned on having staff either working from home or occasionally meeting in a hub for staff meetings. Virtually none of them were asking staff to return to the office. However, in non-unionised workplaces and particularly in the private sector there was a considerable return to the office. 

As mitigations were reduced between July and November 2021, leading to a considerable upsurge in social gatherings, particularly among younger people, roughly 20,000 deaths as roughly 500 people a week continued to die from the Delta variant. This was despite the rollout of the two doses, which had started at the beginning of the year. 

This kind of socialising was encouraged by the government, which boasted that the UK was the most open country in Europe and the Health Minister had said in July that they were prepared to accept 100,000 cases per day. This never actually happened with Delta but showed the direction of travel for a government that places far more importance on the economy than on public health.

This nonchalant attitude to the risks of infection extended to some in the union. The union conference was arranged as a hybrid event, but several hundred delegates attended. Most of them did not wear masks or practise social distancing. When I complained, I was told by one delegate that it was ok as “they were all facing forward”. The protection measures all delegates had been asked for was a vaccination certificate or a negative antigen test result, but many only showed this on the first day and there were no subsequent tests over the course of the five days. I considered this to be due to the government’s and media’s constant messaging that it was all over and because some in the union were ignoring their own health advice, sent previously to representatives about workplaces.

At the same time, the Omicron variant first appeared and began to slowly spread through London. My workplace planned a Xmas dinner for staff in a busy restaurant in mid-December and myself and some other staff declined as we had concerns about infection. It has since been revealed that 20% of infections occur in indoor dining venues. Instead I organised an outdoor lunch for my team in early December. This was a psychologically powerful event as we had only seen each other on screens for nearly two years. 

Just two weeks later, Omicron was raging though London and the city had once again become the epicentre for a variant in Europe. The government reluctantly reintroduced protections (Plan B) but only managed to get it voted through Parliament with the support of opposition MPs, as many of its own libertarian MPs were such right wing extremists that they would not countenance any controls. 

I have been involved throughout in the campaign by Zero Covid UK. Several trade unions have supported it and recently the Socialist Health Association, the main left health campaign group, agreed to affiliate.

As Omicron has continued to paralyse the National Health Service (NHS) and lead to huge numbers of infections, the death rate has – once again – risen to 400 per day. There is much talk of it being milder and causing less deaths than in the Delta wave but the fact remains that for the Conservative government profit trumps public health every time.

Since February this year all restrictions have been dropped in the UK, with two resulting waves: the BA2 wave which crashed across the country in March and April and led to a huge number of cases and many resulting deaths, though not as high as the Delta wave, and then in June and July the far more infectious BA5 wave arrived, infecting many who until then had not been infected.

I continued to ensure that most workers in my workplace could work remotely and had a guarantee from the employer that air filters would be placed in the offices and staff provided free testing once a week. In June I left my job after nearly fourteen years. I told my colleagues that my main legacy as a union representative would be a safe workplace. The pandemic shows no sign of easing and 200,000 here are dead already. The Johnson government’s lack of responsibility is the main cause for the dreadful death toll. The unions remain one of the key factors ensuring health and safety in the workplace now that the government has dropped all safety measures. As a union rep I was pleased to have been able to play a role in that.

For further reading:

Diary of a Pandemic Shop Steward 2020

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Joseph Healy is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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