Diary of a pandemic shop steward

Joseph Healy writes: When I last wrote this diary account it was in the autumn of 2020. It later became known to me that despite my concerns about our workplace not being Covid secure, management planned to start bringing staff back to the office in September 2020 but events intervened. Later that autumn the Alpha variant appeared and case rates began to rocket again. The government changed its advice again leading up to Xmas (too late once again) and our employer decided to go along with that. So as we entered 2021 and the hospitalisations and deaths rocketed, we remained working remotely. This was not easy for several of my colleagues for a variety of reasons and soon mental health and stress related problems started to appear. Sickness rates rose at work and in several conversations with my members it became obvious that the long lockdown and the increasing anxiety was having a toll on their mental health. I tried as a union representative to provide as much encouragement and support as possible. Meanwhile the union meetings I attended were also all online and reports from union officers demonstrated that other workplaces were having the same problems, although none in our sector were pushing people to return to the workplace.

Spring 2021

With the arrival of Spring the situation improved. Younger workmates who enjoyed sports and lots of activities 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 began to become more and more obvious as I had argued from the start. My employer made no effort to bring people back to the workfplace – it appeared that they had been burnt by previous experiences and 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 from there on the news were apocalyptic with bodies being burnt in pyres and people fighting over oxygen cylinders. 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 despite scientists appealing to the government to introduce travel restrictions. Johnson had planned a meeting with Modi in India but the meeting  was finally cancelled due to the explosion of cases in India. It was already too late to prevent Delta arriving in the UK and it was only at this late stage that the UK government stopped the flights from India. The UK became the epicentre of Delta in Europe as it was later to become the epicentre of Omicron.

This meant that the limitations (masks on public transport, indoors etc) were not lifted as the number of cases rose dramatically. My union issued health guides to workplace safety and Covid and I continued to liaise closely with my union officer asking if any other workplaces in the sector were bringing staff back to the office. In the interim, my union Executive had decided in June to meet in person in the union’s shiny new HQ in Birmingham. I thought that this was decidedly risky. Later I found out that several Executive members tested positive and at least one was hospitalised. I also argued at my union committee meetings that all meetings should be online or at least hybrid to ensure that disabled and clinically vulnerable members like me could be included. After all inclusion and not exclusion had to be at the heart of my union. This was agreed by the Executive and all union meetings became hybrid.

Summer 2021

As the summer of 2021 wore on it was clear that more and more staff were returning to work for the other organisations in our building and our Director and one or two non-union staff were going into the office several times a week. Later a young trade union activist who joined my workplace said that the only reason why we were the only workplace with people still predominantly working remotely was because we were unionised and that I had held back any attempts to go back to what was not a Covid secure workplace.

The football fever of the Euros in July led to a huge rise in cases as younger people gathered in large groups in bars to watch the matches and also many who attended football matches were infected. The libertarian government of Johnson finally removed all mitigations 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 the Director of my organisation, with whom I had built up a good rapport, left and we were faced with dealing with a new person.

Working towards workplace safety

I met with my union’s Equality Rep at work and we agreed to meet with the new Director. We made it clear that we wanted a Homeworking Policy as there had never been one before. This was agreed and the Equalities Rep equality proofed the document by ensuring that staff would not be penalised in any way by either choosing to work at home or in the office and 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 Hepa air filtration units as in the cold weather it would be impossible to work with the small windows open. I consulted with our union officer and the Director agreed to consult with us further. Prior to this meeting it had appeared that she had been planning to bring us back in September.

In the interim, I had been attending my union’s regional voluntary sector committee and hearing about what was happening across London in my sector. It appeared that many charities facing financial shortfalls had decided to get rid of their offices entirely and save on overheads by having staff either working from home or occasionally meeting in a hub for staff meetings. It was clear that virtually none of them were asking staff to return to the office. My union had issued more Covid safety leaflets and guidelines for workplace representatives like me and it appeared that no major changes were planned. However, in the non-unionised workplaces and particularly in the private sector there was a considerable return to the office but nowhere on the scale that it had been before the pandemic.

Autumn 2021

As mitigations were reduced between July and November, leading to a considerable upsurge in social dining, nightclubs and pub outings, particularly among younger people, there were still 20,000 deaths as roughly 500 people a week continued to die from the Delta variant despite the rollout of the two vaccinations, which had started at the beginning of the year.

I was careful to ensure that I received my third “booster” shot in late September as traveling on trains etc was a nightmare with very few wearing masks or practicing social distancing. This was encouraged by the libertarian 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 100k cases per day. This actually never happened with Delta but showed the direction of travel for this government for whom the economy was far more important than public health.

This nonchalant attitude to the risks of infection extended to some in the union. I had refused to attend the union’s policy conference in Liverpool in October as a delegate as I was concerned about the infection risks. The conference was arranged as a hybrid event but several hundred delegates attended. I was shocked when I saw the photos from the conference with most delegates not masked nor practising social distancing. In a subsequent discussion about the conference at the union’s LGBT committee I complained about this and was told by one delegate that it was ok as “they were all facing forward”. The protection measures were that all delegates had been asked for a vaccination cert or a negative antigen test result but I heard later that many only showed this on the first day and that there were no subsequent tests over the course of the five days! I also heard that several delegates had been infected and one had died in hospital. I considered this due to the government’s and media’s constant messaging that it was all over and some in the union ignoring their own health advice sent to representatives about workplaces.

Omicron arrives

Back at my workplace the Director announced that as she had been an interim placement she was leaving at Xmas for a new job. 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 central London 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 and we met for the first time in nearly two years. This was psychologically a powerful event as we had only seen each other on screens for so long and I knew that some of my workmates really wanted to meet and really appreciated finally seeing each other as I did.

It was fortunate that I planned the meal early in December as within two weeks 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! The Xmas meal at work was also cancelled and the government advised people to work from home once again.

I have been involved throughout in the campaign by Zero Covid UK to ensure as much safety as possible and elimination of the virus. It has been supported by several national trade unions and recently the Socialist Health Association, a Left health campaign group, agreed to affiliate.

As Omicron has continued to paralyse the National Health Service and lead to huge numbers of infections, the death rate has risen to 400 per day. There is much talk of it being milder and of less deaths than in the Delta wave but the fact remains that for the Conservative UK government profit trumps public health every time! The business groups and pseudo scientists who support the Great Barrington Declaration (a declaration stating that isolating the vulnerable and allowing the rest of the population to be infected would bring about herd immunity)  have the ear of government and it seems that Plan B will be dropped by the end of January. This will lead inevitably to more hospitalisations but also an end to any sort of life once more for those living with a disability or who are clinically vulnerable. The sheer number of people who have been infected with Omicron in London has been incredible!

2022 begins

So it would appear that  my workplace negotiations with a new management about a safe and secure workplace will extend into 2022. I know that many of my members in the workplace miss the socialisation of work and some of the younger ones believe that they are no longer at risk from Omicron, as some of them have already been infected. However, the government’s scientific committee, SAGE, are already predicting another Omicron wave in early summer and I am immune to the siren calls from the right wing press and the government that it is all over.

My primary duty to my union members who have elected me is to ensure their safety and that going forward that is safeguarded in our workplace and that those particularly at risk are protected. Whatever this year brings I will continue to take that duty seriously and carry out one of the primary aims of a trade union. As Cicero wrote all those centuries ago: “The health of the People is the highest law”.

Joseph Healy is a member of the Zero Covid UK steering committee, Left Unity’s National Council, Anticapitalist Resistance, and shop steward with UNITE in the not for profit sector. You can find him on twitter at https://twitter.com/Verde1957.


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