By Len McCluskey
With poverty and unemployment skyrocketing before lockdown, the government must act urgently to avoid a disaster – and support millions of workers who are already on the breadline.
In the end, it took Boris Johnson just eight minutes to tell the country it was being locked down again. He didn’t address his government’s dangerous and shambolic handling of this virus, or offer additional help to our NHS firefighting a level five threat ripping through the system, leaving staff exhausted as they deal with the human costs of his government’s dither and delay.
Frankly, it is far from prime ministerial as can be imagined that the people of the country were told to brace themselves for further months in an economic coma but with no attendant support for incomes and health.
There are huge milestones on the footpath we must now follow, and they are coming at people fast.
On Monday, the ban on landlords in England evicting their tenants ends. Later this month, the deadline for applications for the third grant under the self-employed income support scheme passes. And the last day of January brings the deadline for mortgage holidays and the end of the ban on home repossessions.
These imminent cliff-edges are swiftly followed by the closure of the government-backed ‘bounce back’ loan schemes, withdrawal of the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift – a lifeline for many struggling families – and the April end of the job retention scheme.
Rishi Sunak has announced £4.6 billion worth of grants for the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors. Astonishingly though, the chancellor, whose initial enthusiasm for fast and vast action has been replaced by a tendency to last minute limited fiscal crisis-responses that have to be dragged out of him, had nothing to say on jobs and livelihoods. For that, we must await his 5 March budget.
Well, workers can’t wait. The millions on benefits, the low-paid, the self-employed and precarious workers, and their children, cannot wait for springtime stock-taking to know if they will receive longer term income support or be pushed further into poverty.
Fix the furlough scheme for parents and make it clear to employers that they can and should use it. Deliver the long-promised laptops and internet access, and act to increase statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage and available to all, Chancellor. If you do not, then you ignore the plight of millions – and with that the recovery of our country.
Almost one year ago Unite first called for emergency legislation to ensure that workers not entitled to SSP receive it from day one if they can’t work because of coronavirus. Nothing has changed, other than the virus has mutated and become even more infectious. And it remains the case that poor workers can’t isolate, and if they can’t isolate the virus can’t be beaten back. A TUC survey has found that one in five people forced to self-isolate and unable to work from home have received no sick pay or wages confirms this.
This virus feeds off inequality, targeting the poor and the vulnerable, sadly to be found in shameful levels in the UK, the fifth richest economy on earth. But this government is making deliberate choices. Its failure to provide sick pay that people can live on and where all workers who need it can receive it is a conscious, ideological act but this pandemic will not be defeated until the diabolical choice between health and income has been removed.
Those of us in the union movement who know from our members exactly the struggle they face were, of course, disappointed that Keir Starmer followed the PM on air last night with a comment that there were ‘no absences’ in his speech. I sincerely hope that this is just a failure to think on his feet rather than a genuinely held belief. I prefer to regard Anneliese Dodd’s media round calling for genuine and full income support as the more accurate representation of where HM’s official opposition stands.
Tomorrow’s debate in parliament must not be hijacked by the few on the Tory benches who have all too readily had the ear of the PM in which to pour their lockdown scepticism. No, this must be where the Prime Minister and his Chancellor talk to the people of the country and for the people of this country, not a self-interested faction that will lead us to greater despair.
Speak for the industries that have gone without long-promised help, supply chains that are trying to get to grips with Brexit, and SMEs trying to figure out how to make workplaces secure amid an airborne disease and need urgent support if they are to keep people in work.
Help them by giving them the certainty that the JRS will extend for as long as needed and in line with a vaccine programme that can see the safe re-opening of the economy. And workers sick with fear need to know that they will not lose their homes and that their incomes will not be destroyed.
The signs so far are not great. For those who still have jobs in our hardest-hit industries, many furloughed on below minimum wage levels – which has to be addressed, now – and terrified of what those cliff-edge January dates will bring, the new package offers no hope. They are, as ever, the forgotten victims of a shuttered high street.
This pandemic will subside, thanks to the genius of our scientific community and heroic efforts of our health workers. But the seeds of a new crisis are already being sown – that of endemic, generational poverty and unemployment.
This government is now commonly referred to as the worst in living memory, riddled with cronyism bordering on corruption and stuffed with incompetents. We need an opposition that turns the spotlight on them, exposing them as unfit for office.
So, I appeal to Keir and his team: take off the gloves. The public will respect you for being strong and decisive, a welcome contrast to the shambles in No 10.
The people of this country have been put through hell by this government. They need a strong and confident alternative. Workers can’t wait.