Speech by John Puntis at Sheffield IWMD event 28 April 2022

The theme for this year’s International Workers Memorial Day is ‘occupational health and safety is a human right’ – an issue highlighted by the covid pandemic when it was clear that many employers (and indeed the Health and Safety Executive itself) failed in their duty to protect workers.

Covid 19 has caused the deaths of at least 2,129 health and social care staff in England and Wales. This is a reflection of their high risk of exposure to the virus in the course of their work, with an over representation of those from black and minority ethnic communities.

The NHS is now abandoning social distancing and need for isolation as part of the shameful government narrative that Covid is over (currently 1/17 people are infected, with around 300 deaths each day). Allowing high spread of infection and failure to vaccinate poor parts of the world is a recipe for new and possibly more devastating variants, yet we are now seeing a 40% reduction in jobs at the UK Health and Security Agency and a huge reduction in testing as the treasury reduces funding.

Workers are still being put at risk of covid two years into the pandemic because official infection control guidelines remain ambiguous about the role of airborne transmission of infection.  This is because accepting this means responsibilities are placed on government and employers for providing clean air and respiratory protection – the response to covid then becomes a public health issue rather than the individual responsibility of the worker (i.e. ‘living with covid’).

In societies where there is more equality, trade unions are stronger and people are happier. It is no accident that as the UK has moved over the last 40 years to being much more unequal, union membership has declined. All health and care staff should join a trade union. The NHS must value its staff – pay proper wages; end zero hour contracts; end punitive exit clauses in contracts for nurses recruited from overseas; end outsourcing of staff. Care staff must be paid a living wage, given training, a career structure and be given the respect they deserve.

This is how we fight for the living while remembering the dead.

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