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Public sector workers are for life, not just for a crisis

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Our applause will ring hollow unless it serves as a reminder that key workers deserve a lot more.

Tonight, for the third week in a row, millions of people across the country will come together to applaud those on the front line in the fight against COVID-19.

In a welcome shift, recognition has been extended to include not only those directly caring for our sick and elderly, but all key workers providing essential services through this crisis.

People joining in with #clapforkeyworkers are clapping for NHS and social care workers, cleaners, teachers, drivers, posties, refuse collectors – and all the other key workers who are keeping our country going while we’re in lockdown.

In the midst of a crisis that is teaching us the difference between what we need and what we can manage without, it is significant that people are overcoming lockdown-enforced isolation to share appreciation for the people we rely on for our most basic and vital needs.

But the sudden outpour of gratitude is also striking because it highlights just how much we under-value these same people in normal times.

Many of the people we rely on most – social care workers, cleaners, retail staff - are among the lowest paid and least secure workers in the country.

Since 2010, the public sector workers we now rightly herald as heroes have seen their work devalued, their working conditions eroded and their real terms pay repeatedly cut.

Our applause will ring hollow unless it serves as a reminder that key workers deserve a lot more.

A round of applause is no substitute for proper protection

It has become clear that staff on the frontline in fighting COVID-19 are facing a crisis within a crisis.

Severe shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) mean many are without even basic protection against infection. Left with protective equipment that is inadequate, out of date or non-existent, many frontline workers are having to risk their own life to save others.

Those who refuse face the threat of a disciplinary, and people are warned not to speak out.

It is the people who will care for our loved ones if they get sick – saving their lives and holding their hands while they’re dying – who are most in danger, due to their regular and close contact with patients. Yet they are being exposed to unreasonable and unnecessary risk.

Our heroes should not have to be martyrs. That's why, at the same time as clapping our heroes, the TUC are calling for real action on PPE, including:

  • Full transparency on the Government’s plans for scaling up and distributing PPE supply
  • Use of UK manufacturers to urgently increase supply
  • Clear systems for employers to report shortages and shortfalls
  • A guarantee that no member of staff will be put under pressure to perform tasks without adequate protective equipment.

Public sector workers are for life, not just for a crisis

Shortages run deeper than emergency supplies. Ten years of austerity have left the public sector weakened and in some places completely hollowed out.

The NHS has fewer hospital beds per capita than most advanced economies and a shortage of 40,000 nurses. Staff shortages in social care are even higher, at well over 100,000.

Across the board, public sector workers have lived through ten years in which their pay fell as their workload increased.

They’ve been through restructures and privatisations that made their jobs harder and their lives less secure. They’ve been forced to manage cuts that reduced services and cuts that created more demand for those services.

In our darkest hour, we are turning to these same public sector workers and asking them to put themselves at risk to help others. The best way to show our appreciation is to commit to doing things differently from now on.

Back in the foothills of this crisis, the Chancellor used this government’s first budget to signal a significant change of direction in the form of a return to deficit spending.

It was left an open question how far this would be used to end austerity by: putting money where its needed most; ending privatisation and outsourcing; and fixing public sector pay.

The rules of the game have changed several times since then, but the goal posts haven’t moved. In fact, they’ve become much clearer: it's time to start properly funding our public services and valuing public sector workers.

Let’s make sure we remember that when we #clapforkeyworkers tonight.

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