Bread with few roses, as the government push us back to work

A front page from The Times, with the headline "State aid for workers to be cut by chancellor". A smaller piece is headlined, "Top government adviser quits after breaking lockdown with mistress". A strip under the Times masthead shows two women in jumpsuits, one blue and one red, with the headline "Alpha woman-wear (it's all about the jumpsuit)".
The front page of this morning’s Times, announcing that the government will cut “state aid for workers” under the furlough scheme from 80% to 60%.

Yesterday a draft of the government’s guidance for “getting Britain back to work” was obtained by BuzzFeed: seven documents giving various advice for how companies might minimise the risk for staff coming back to work by ensuring the ability to keep their distance from each other, wash their hands and clean surfaces more, providing more parking or bike racks, adjusting seating arrangements and various other pretty obvious things. The TUC (Trades Union Council), understandably, criticised the guidance for making employers responsible for deciding what measures to take to ensure staff and public safety: “this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual – which will put their workforce at risk”.

In late March, I did a couple of weeks’ work at a Royal Mail depot in London. Most of the time I was driving a truck on my own, but I had to visit the transport office and then load the vehicles on the depot floor. At this particular depot, they installed a separate entrance and exit by utilising an existing fire door and repurposed a disabled toilet on the ground floor as a hand-washing station. (There are other disabled toilets in the building.) In the transport office, only one person was allowed in at a time and others were expected to wait outside. Driving duties are themselves all solo, but when loading, one cannot get away with interacting with other staff and frequently one has to shout to make oneself heard over the din of machinery. Few were wearing face-masks or other PPE and it certainly was not provided. It was not always possible to maintain the necessary distance.

The problem is: like public transport, workplaces are not designed for the necessities of the Covid-19 pandemic or any other. There is only so much space for parking; at some sites, parking has been used for other purposes. Many only have one door that is convenient for entrance and exit. Not all have the room for ensuring one-way pedestrian flow and if they do, it would mean long detours round buildings rather than direct journeys. Many do not have changing or washing facilities so changing into uniforms on site and washing them on site would just not be possible. Some do not have adequate toilet facilities already, or share facilities with neighbours in the same building. Many are good ideas, such as doing away with “hot desks” that can be used by anyone (in some offices, all desks are ‘hot’), but mean nothing if left up to employers to decide.

Many of the suggestions should have been made at the start of the lockdown for companies that would continue to trade through it; many are already being done. It suggests “Defining the number of customers that can follow 2-metre social distancing within the store”, limiting the numbers of customers in store at any one time and using outside spaces for queuing. Supermarkets have been doing all these things for weeks. It suggests using cashless payments only; many businesses are already doing so. Same for encouraging solo shopping. All the things that have been pioneered in supermarkets will have to be rolled out as more high-street shops reopen; a major issue will be that many just do not have the space outside for a large queue. As far as the logistics suggestions go, many of these are already in place and some were even before Coronavirus was heard of. Scheduling delivery times? Do they think businesses never did this? The problem is that sometimes companies cannot guarantee that a driver will be there on time, perhaps because the goods were late, or the driver was late (or was sick and had to be replaced) or because an earlier delivery took longer than expected. Making sure vehicles are well-ventilated? They all have windows that can open and close. One person refuelling? It should never take more than one person to refuel a truck. They also suggest “finding alternative solutions to two-person delivery”; while this is usually feasible for medium-distance driving jobs, one person cannot get a washing machine up multiple flights of stairs. Perhaps they should ride in two vehicles.

As reported in tomorrow’s Times, the government are already planning to drive people back to work by, for example, cutting the furlough scheme’s payments from 80% to 60% of their original wage from July as they believe that Britain has become ‘addicted’ to the payments. It has always been clear that the government wanted no more disruption to the economy than was absolutely necessary and not to have to subsidise people’s income more or for longer than was absolutely necessary or, perhaps, more than they would not be able to get away with. This is why so many industries are operating as normal and only the retail and leisure industries have really been locked down. Part of the reason there was pressure for a lockdown to be imposed in the first place was that people were being forced to come in to jobs in retail and leisure which put them at risk; easing it for business will mean their staff lose that protection. In many countries in Europe, the majority of industries, including manufacturing, have been shut down by law and people need to fill out a form to tell any passing police officer why they are out of their home. Despite the reports that Spain and Italy have come “out of lockdown” over the past week, really they have moved from an almost total lockdown to our level.

For many people, particularly the middle classes, life under ‘lockdown’ has been quite pleasant; the roads are quiet and the air is clear, and people can go out and enjoy themselves within reason around their local area; many have been busy in the garden. For others, it has been lonely and isolating, particularly those who live alone. Many single parents will not have had face-to-face contact with an adult friend all this time; many women will have been deprived of the companionship of female friends. Almost every day, I see people post on Facebook or Twitter about how they had a brief meeting with their mother for the first time in weeks at a distance or through a window. For people with pre-existing mental illness, the isolation and sudden withdrawal of service may have worsened or changed their symptoms; people who are in institutions have been deprived of trips out and of family visits for this whole period. I am sure many people would not be desperate to get back to work, and certainly would not be willing to take risks with their health and their families’, if there was adequate government support to remain at home; what they do want is to be able to see friends and family, to visit places such as parks and gardens away from their neighbourhood, and these would also carry much less risk if they did not have to rub shoulders with all and sundry at work. And if people want to sit on a park bench and read a paper and have a coffee, they should be allowed to do so. If they are alone (or with others from their household) and apart from others, they are not harming anyone.

There is a slogan that dates from the American women’s suffrage movement and was widely used in American trade unionism: “give us bread, but give us roses too”. The latter sometimes refers to dignity and other times to culture and education. Both government and media are preoccupied with the economy, with “getting us back to work”, but the things that make life worth living seem to have been forgotten about. We can’t live on bread — even home-baked bread — alone.

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