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Workers' Weekly Internet Edition: Article Index : ShareThis
The Need for Workers to Have a Decisive Say in the Furlough Scheme
Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Minorities Underscores Need for People's Empowerment
Rights and Health of Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Must Be Protected in COVID-19 Response
On Friday, the government admitted for the first time that the figures of the deaths of people in care homes and the community from COVID-19 were false. Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, confirmed that the figures had been "substantially underestimated" as he appeared before the Commons Select Committee. He admitted that there had been more deaths of care home residents than had so far been reported by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), and the share of deaths taking place in homes was higher than so far reported. "I have asked the CQC to make sure we record the deaths of those who are residents of care homes. They started to collect that data yesterday and it will start to be published shortly."
The Health Service Journal commented: "The size of the discrepancy for only a single week to April 3 suggests that a figure of 1,400 total deaths in care homes from COVID-19 given by Care England this week may be a substantial underestimate."
With no hard data being recorded by the government and ONS, The National Care Forum after doing a survey demonstrated "a significant increase in Coronavirus related deaths within care homes", which when scaled up suggest that "more than 2,500 care home residents may have died in the homes of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 during last week alone, representing a 193% increase. This analysis suggests that a total of 4,040 people may have died of this illness within UK residential and nursing services before April 13. Factoring in the deaths of individuals who were admitted to hospitals, the figure is a tragic 7,337 deaths amongst our most vulnerable communities."
This government admission shows more than the criminal way in which it is handling the COVID-19 pandemic by ignoring the deaths of patients dying in care homes. This miscounting of deaths shows the whole disregard for human life that has always been evident with the ruling elite and successive British governments. For, example over many years, the "winter crisis" in the NHS has seen the unnecessary deaths of patients due to lack of beds, trolley waits and so on, which has never been formally recorded and highlighted by government, let alone the tragic loss of life in care homes in the present pandemic. Also, during the Iraq war, not only did the Blair government of the time criminally commit war crimes by invading Iraq, but it also refused to count the hundreds of thousands killed or maimed in Iraq by their invasion. The pandemic in this respect is playing the role of exposing the criminal disregard and contempt for human life of those in power whose outlook is to serve private interests, not safeguard human life and the public well-being.
Indeed, one of the striking features of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which received the Royal Assent on March 25, is its perspective of "a reduced workforce, increased pressure on health services and death management processes" and to "introduce new statutory powers which are designed to mitigate these impacts", as the Explanatory Notes to the Act state. The contrast between the safeguarding of public health and well-being, including preventing deaths from the disease, and the Act's focus on "a reduced workforce" and "death management processes" is impossible to ignore.
Moreover, the admission that the government's figures for deaths from COVID-19 are wrong exposes the outdated and unacceptable arrangements, where the lives and concerns of the people are ignored and where the health and care workers have little or no say in the arrangements. What health care workers and the people in the community have been fighting for is the necessity for a human-centred system of health and social care that meets the needs of all for hospital, community, mental health and care homes. Central to such a system is the necessity to empower health workers and care workers to make the crucial decisions. This includes the ability to mobilise the working class and people to their full capacity and with their full involvement, especially in times of such a crisis at the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nothing less is acceptable.
 Dave West, "Care home deaths substantially underestimated as
Hancock moves to speed reporting", HSJ, April 17, 2020
 "Ring of steel needed to support care homes as deaths double in a
week", NCF press release, April 18, 2020
The Treasury announced on April 17 that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is to be extended by one month until the end of June.
The announcement said: "The scheme, which allows firms to furlough employees with the government paying cash grants of 80% of their wages up to a maximum of £2,500, was originally open for three months and backdated from the 1 March to the end of May." To be furloughed means that a person ceases to work, or is laid off, but remains employed, with the government providing cash in lieu of remuneration, as outlined in the Treasury quote. It has been described as "state-paid leave".
It is reported that more than nine million workers are expected to be furloughed. The BBC website gives the following explanation as to how the scheme works: "Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the government will cover 80% of workers' wages for March, April and May if they are put on leave. Employers will pay workers and reclaim the money from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at the end of April. They can apply to join the scheme from Monday [April 20]." The minimum time that a worker can be furloughed is three weeks.
According to the website Wired: "Lawyers said that those already self-isolating cannot be furloughed (and must be paid statutory sick pay) until they return to work. Once they return, they can be furloughed. And people who are 'shielding' and vulnerable to severe illness caused by coronavirus can still be placed on furlough."
It will be noted that the onus is on the employers to decide to apply for the scheme and notify the employees. Legal guidance suggests that, at best, it is recommended that companies get agreement from the workers for the change. In addition, the threat of redundancy hangs over workers after the period covered by the scheme ends, particularly if the coronavirus crisis is still affecting society, as looks inevitable.
It is being said in mitigation that changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation. But the concept of "furlough" has not appeared before in the employment law of this country, leaving the door open for a floodgate of attacks on the rights of workers. Furthermore, as tax research writer Richard Murphy explains in his blog on April 15: "well-advised large employers who know that they have to undertake a statutory consultancy period with their staff on redundancy arrangements will begin issuing redundancy notices to maybe millions of people tomorrow [now delayed by a month], because if staff cannot be paid after June 1 [now July 1] when the furlough scheme ends, that's when notice has to be given and the consultations need to begin. For smaller companies (employing less than 100 people) the date when notice is required is later: they will need to issue the redundancy notices at the end of the month [again now delayed by a month]."
According to a survey published by the British Chamber of Commerce, one in three companies have put at least 75% of their workforce on furlough. It is unconscionable that these workers should face being made unemployed. Among others, the UCU (University and College Union) is taking the stand that employers should guarantee 100% of normal pay and commit to making employer occupational pension contributions in the normal way during furlough. They also propose that workers and their union branches take a stand that:
Workers must have a decisive say in this scheme, contrary to the government's mantra that all that counts is the health of business and the economy, as though workers were just incidental to the well-being of the direction of the economy. This is the perspective on which the workers' rights must be fought. There is a developing consciousness that workers should emerge from this crisis with the perspective that it is their economy and they should be the decision-makers.
 For further details, see: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/uk-furlough-scheme-job-protection
For the TUC guidance, see: https://www.tuc.org.uk/what-are-rules-if-youre-temporarily-laid-off
The first ten doctors to die in the UK were all from minority backgrounds
One of the main features of the current pandemic is that it is revealing the fact that the entire society, and particularly the health service, is not organised to place the care of the most essential workers, the most vulnerable workers, and other working people in first place.
Recently, for example, there has been much concern expressed about the fact that a disproportionate number of people from African, Asian, Caribbean and other minority backgrounds, many of them health workers, have lost their lives during the pandemic. This month, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the head of the British Medical Association (BMA), wrote to the government demanding an investigation as to why the first ten doctors to die from COVID-19 all came from minority backgrounds. An investigation by The Guardian found that of the 53 NHS staff known to have died in the pandemic at that time, 68% were of African, Asian and other minority backgrounds. They also include twenty-two nurses, two porters, a radiology support worker, a patient discharge planner and a hospital bus driver. According to The Guardian, twelve of the health workers who have died were of Filipino origin.
Dr Nagpaul also drew attention to the fact that about one third of all patients in intensive care as a result of the pandemic also came from such backgrounds, even though they only comprise about 14% of the entire population. According to the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, around 33.6% of patients in critical care with COVID-19 are from African, Asian and other minority backgrounds, even in those areas where such patients make up as many as 25% of the population. Dr Nagpaul added that these facts were "extremely distressing and worrying", and he concluded that "there's no doubt there appears to be a manifest disproportionate severity of infection in BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people and doctors. This has to be addressed - the government must act now."
On April 19, the government agreed that there would be a review by NHS England and Public Health England into why people from certain backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by the virus. But it did not provide any information about what - if any - data would be made publicly available. The head of the BMA cautiously welcomed the review but added that it required "taking vital steps now to protect our BAME communities until we can develop a detailed understanding of the threats they face".
Some of many health workers who have given their lives while treating their patients with COVID-19
Certainly, one important factor to be taken into account is the large number of people from a minority background who work in health and social care. Around 44% work in the NHS (40% of all doctors, 20% of all nurses nationally and 50% in London), and 17% of the social care workforce also come from these backgrounds nationally, rising to 59% in London. They are amongst the health and care workers who have been placed in harm's way by their devotion to those they care for and the government's criminal inability to provide adequate PPE and the wide-scale testing of health workers. However, even taking such criminal neglect into account, the figures are still disproportionate, even for London, where the percentage of NHS staff corresponds most closely with the composition of the capital's population.
Researchers point out that what must also be taken into account are other social and economic factors that have demonstrated that, for many years, Asian, African, Caribbean and other minority communities in general experience worse health outcomes for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, HIV, breast and prostate cancer, and sickle-cell anaemia. Many of these "underlying conditions" are associated with poorer coronavirus survival rates and put such communities at higher risk of contracting the virus and displaying greater adverse symptoms.
In addition, those from these communities are often employed in other public-facing occupations such as transport, are less likely to be working at home during the pandemic, or have higher incidents of poverty and unemployment, homelessness, overcrowding and the social conditions which arise from them. In general, these communities are more prone to all the so-called health inequalities, the inability of capital-centred economies to provide adequate health, economic and social conditions for all. These conditions have deteriorated even more greatly over the past ten years as a result of the austerity programmes of successive governments.
Such disparities are also being exhibited in other countries, most starkly in the US, perhaps for similar reasons. In the city of Chicago, for example, African Americans make up only 30% of the inhabitants, but half of all coronavirus cases and 70% of deaths from the virus. Across the entire state of Illinois, African Americans are only 14% of the population but account for 41% of the deaths from COVID-19.
The governments of such societies can no longer hide the fact that they do not take care of their most vulnerable citizens, do not protect their most essential workers and do not have adequate health care systems. What is now essential is to step up the struggle for people's empowerment in order to bring about a society which puts the health and well-being of all people in first place.
OHCHR, IOM, UNHCR and WHO issue joint press release, March 31, 2020
In a joint press release, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organisation say: "In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all vulnerable. The virus has shown that it does not discriminate - but many refugees, those forcibly displaced, the stateless and migrants are at heightened risk.
"Three-quarters of the world's refugees and many migrants are hosted in developing regions where health systems are already overwhelmed and under-capacitated. Many live in overcrowded camps, settlements, makeshift shelters or reception centres, where they lack adequate access to health services, clean water and sanitation.
"The situation for refugees and migrants held in formal and informal places of detention, in cramped and unsanitary conditions, is particularly worrying. Considering the lethal consequences a COVID-19 outbreak would have, they should be released without delay. Migrant children and their families and those detained without a sufficient legal basis should be immediately released.
"This disease can be controlled only if there is an inclusive approach which protects every individual's rights to life and health. Migrants and refugees are disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented. To avert a catastrophe, governments must do all they can to protect the rights and the health of everyone. Protecting the rights and the health of all people will in fact help control the spread of the virus.
"It is vital that everyone, including all migrants and refugees, are ensured equal access to health services and are effectively included in national responses to COVID-19, including prevention, testing and treatment. Inclusion will help not only to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, but will also serve to protect public health and stem the global spread of COVID-19."
The release goes on to say: "More than ever, as COVID-19 poses a global threat to our collective humanity, our primary focus should be on the preservation of life, regardless of status. This crisis demands a coherent, effective international approach that leaves no-one behind. At this crucial moment we all need to rally around a common objective, fighting this deadly virus. Many refugees, displaced, stateless people and migrants have skills and resources that can also be part of the solution."
The release concludes by affirming that fear or intolerance cannot be allowed to undermine rights or compromise the effectiveness of responses to the global pandemic.
Workers and their unions have issued a warning that the government must not fully re-open schools until staff safety is scientifically assured.
A statement issued by the GMB, Unison and Unite the union reads: "We call on the government to provide immediate reassurance to staff that any strategy for re-opening schools is discussed with relevant unions and other bodies at an early stage. Any proposals must be shared well in advance of any implementation, and re-opening schools should only happen once there is clear published scientific evidence that can command the confidence of the schools' workforce that it is safe to do so. Suggestions in the media that the government in England is considering reopening schools has caused huge anxiety amongst school staff and parents"
The statement also includes demands for sufficient PPE, cleaning supplies and regular testing.
The National Education Union (NEU) has also launched a petition which at the time of writing has garnered more than 80,000 signatures.
NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: "Loose talk costs lives, and unfortunately there has been far too much unhelpful speculation about when schools might fully re-open. The persistent press coverage deeply concerns our members, who would be at immediate risk if government was too hasty in relaxing lock-down measures.
"Following our letter to the Prime Minister on the need to see the evidence on which he will base that decision, and the importance of keeping everyone in the school environment safe, we launched a petition to that effect. I am pleased that so many have supported it and the number continues to grow.
"As yet there is no clarity as to how social distancing would or even could be implemented in schools, particularly for younger age groups. Even though the majority of children are considered low risk, their teachers and families are not. The fear is that asymptomatic children will put adult staff in danger, so it is essential that we see a programme of testing, PPE and contact tracing throughout the education sector before schools are fully re-opened.
"It is concerning that during his appearance in front of the Health Committee yesterday, Matt Hancock made no mention of school staff when referring to the expansion of testing across emergency services and other key workers.
"Hope must not get the better of reason. Lives matter, and that is why we fully support the government being led by the science - but only when they are open with the public and take the profession with them in their decision making."
This last remark underlines that no future plans must be implemented without the teachers and other workers affected by the plans having a decisive say in the decisions.
Bus and transport workers in London who have died after contracting coronavirus were honoured by a one minute silence at 11am on Friday, April 17.
There are more than 20,000 bus workers throughout the capital who are members of Unite the union. Twenty-one London transport workers, including 15 bus drivers, have died in the course of their work at a time when they have been demanding more protection. That Transport for London has begun to listen to the workers speaking out is no comfort to those who have lost their lives and their loved ones. The patience of the transport workers has been stretched very thin.
Unite regional secretary for London, Pete Kavanagh, said: "Unite pays tribute to those bus workers who have died during the coronavirus pandemic and our thoughts are with their loved ones at this incredibly painful time. Their heart-breaking sacrifice, at a time of critical need, will never be forgotten.
"Far too many bus workers have lost their lives during this crisis and our members are well aware that the danger has still has not passed. Unite has 20,000 bus worker members across the capital. It is quite clear to us that they are running out of patience with the operators and TfL, and we share their frustrations.
"These workers should feel that everything possible is being done to make them feel safe at work, but they don't. We call again upon TfL to close the front doors on all buses to ensure central boarding only by passengers.
"TfL, the employers, the mayor and the government all need to urgently address all issues."
In addition to central loading, Unite is demanding that TfL instigate a London-wide inspection regime for cleaning at all garages. Furthermore, the union is calling for the establishment of limits on the number of passengers that can board at any one time, as well as the requirement that passengers cover their faces while using public transport.
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