After all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England were removed this week, Sarina Kiayani assesses what this will mean for working people.
It has been over five years since former Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to put the Conservative Party “at the service” of working people. Yet successive Conservative policies, including her successor, Boris Johnson’s, repeated failings around COVID support, appear to have done exactly the opposite of that. The recent ‘Living with COVID’ strategy, unveiled this week, could perhaps be viewed as one of the starkest U-turns on support for workers during the whole pandemic.
Those who cannot work from home rely the most on income support whilst isolating with COVID, and removing both the legal requirement to isolate following a positive COVID-19 test and the provision of self-isolation support payments leaves these workers with little choice but to go to work with COVID and potentially infect colleagues. Not to mention ending the provision for statutory sick pay from the first day of illness in April, which will be the final kick in the teeth to these workers, removing their last legal protection from not going to work ill.
It is one thing to tell the public to “live with COVID”. It is another to put the health of the most vulnerable workers at risk. By ending the provision of free lateral flow tests to the public, the Government is likely hoping that the lack of testing will mean that workers will just not know that they have COVID, and will go to work as normal and exercise personal responsibility by staying at home if they feel ill. Little consideration has been given to the fact that a very transmissible virus is still circulating, not all workers can afford to lose a day’s pay if they catch it, and not all workplaces provide effective sick pay for workers to stay at home.
Although almost 73% of people in the UK are now fully vaccinated, this does not mean that they cannot transmit the virus and become negatively affected by its symptoms. Ending self-isolation support payments and moving the date that statutory sick pay is paid places the burden on workers, who have to decide between missing a day’s pay or going to work ill and facing the potential burden of passing on a virus with unpredictable effects to their colleagues.
We are also just two years into the pandemic, and yet to effectively discern the long-term effects of the virus, or how long vaccinations last for. The Government’s strategy is incredibly risky as a whole, especially given how differently COVID symptoms can manifest and the increased prevalence of long COVID in the population – affecting an estimated 1.3 million. It may be too early to decide that we can ‘live with’ a virus so unpredictable. An additional booster vaccination for the most vulnerable may go some way to preventing serious illness and death, but the ending of any kind of prevention strategy may land even the healthiest individuals with long-term health problems, and the lowest-paid workers will end up the most vulnerable.
By absolving itself of responsibility for COVID rates by removing these mandatory restrictions and instead placing the burden of transmission onto workers, the Conservatives are revealing once again that they are not “at the service” of working people. Labour must now think carefully around its post-COVID response, treading the fine line between a return to ‘normality’ whilst ensuring that protections for the most vulnerable workers remain, and businesses are supported when staff fall ill. Keir Starmer effectively remarked “if you’re 2-1 up, you don’t sub off one of your best defenders” in response to the Government’s latest pandemic strategy. How Labour will maintain those defenders must now be their main talking point around tackling COVID moving forward.
Sarina Kiayani is Communications Officer on the Young Fabians executive committee and the London Young Fabians committee. She tweets at @SarinaKiayani.