Covid-19 Exposed Britain’s Callous Disregard for Worker Safety

On International Workers' Memorial Day, we remember those at the frontline who lost their lives to the pandemic – and the protective measures, from liveable sick pay to PPE, which could have saved them.

Each year, millions of people around the world lose their lives due to accidents and illnesses caused by pitiful working standards. Historically, workers have banded together to demand safer conditions and shorter hours and call for legal, political, and economic protections in the face of a capitalist agenda that prioritises profits over people.

These efforts have achieved considerable progress in the past, including the eradication of lawful child labour and the introduction of health and safety legislation. But we still have a long way to go. Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a government agency, claims that 92 individuals were killed from 2019-2020 as a result of work-related accidents – but this figure is likely an underrepresentation. Academics and campaigners have highlighted numerous shortcomings in HSE data: accounting for reporting failures and the exclusion of information on work-related fatal illness and disease would likely bring the number of UK work-related deaths into the tens of thousands each year.

With the onset of Covid-19, the last twelve months have highlighted this problem in the starkest possible terms. There have been over 125,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK, and although a relatively small proportion of these were deaths within the working age population (20-64), it’s undeniable that some of them, at least, could have been avoided.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data has revealed the varying fatal impact of the pandemic on workers within the nine main types of occupation. The causes of disproportionate death rates across different jobs are countless, but correspond in various ways with variations in geography, age, ethnicity, and other factors, aligning with the prevalence of certain jobs in those areas and demographics worst hit.

Unsurprisingly, jobs that require physical contact with others have suffered the most deaths, with those working in elementary roles (as cleaners, refuse collectors, etc.), caring, leisure, and service occupations topping the list among men. For women, the highest proportion of fatalities occurred among those working in process, plant, or machine operations – positions which similarly entail physical contact with colleagues.

The solution seemed logical. The provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for these high-risk workers could have provided a barrier to the spread of the virus through the workplace. But 2020 saw workers disappointed yet again as their personal safety regularly took a back seat, particularly for precarious workers in the gig economy (a High Court ruling toward the year’s end found that the government had inadequately transposed EU law on the provision of PPE by failing to clarify that gig economy workers are entitled to be given PPE by their bosses) and for NHS and healthcare staff.

Around 30 percent of care workers, nurses, and doctors working in high-risk settings reported a shortfall in PPE provision during the pandemic – reports that came in concurrently with revelations about the government wasting billions on securing inadequate PPE through untested supply channels. This national scandal had very real consequences for the safety of staff: those working in adult social care were reportedly given just 10 percent of their estimated need. It’s likely not coincidental that ‘caring personal services’ was one of the occupations which suffered the highest rates of death among the male working-age population. Nurses were also disproportionately susceptible to coronavirus fatalities when compared to members of the public of the same age and sex.

Taking a step back from PPE provision, fatalities could also have been avoided had workers not been required to come into work unless strictly necessary. Short-sighted policy decisions such as the premature reopening of pubs and restaurants towards the end of 2020—not to mention Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ over the summer—put service staff at unnecessary risk.

To add insult to injury, the government’s consistent refusal to increase the rate of statutory sick pay (SSP) forced too many to make the debilitating choice between going into work ill and having the means to feed their families. Counterintuitive government guidance urged the clinically extremely vulnerable to stay at home, but was not met with a sufficient financial alternative to paid work. A fifth of self-isolating workers have been unable to claim any sick pay at all, and the maximum amount of SSP on offer is a measly £96.35 per week – and workers must clear several hurdles to even obtain that. For those who care for elderly or disabled people, this means not only an increased risk for themselves and their colleagues, but also those for whom they care.

In January this year, Labour MP Tracy Brabin introduced a bill designed to eradicate the gaps in financial support for workers during the pandemic. Among other things, it would have remedied the fact that many zero-hours workers found themselves locked out of the furlough scheme. The bill was unfortunately, although perhaps unsurprisingly, voted down by the Tories, meaning that workers are continuing to be forced to work when they shouldn’t, putting their lives at risk.

Above all, these events during the pandemic have shown that the Labour Party has a duty—moral as much as political—to push workers’ safety firmly on to the parliamentary table. Now is the time to act: too many workers have suffered, and far too many have lost their lives. Outside parliament, too, we need to organise for a changed system that protect all workers, regardless of status or salary, from the bodily dangers posed by an ideology that considers their deaths little more than a temporary inconvenience.