Union leaders representing 3 million frontline workers have warned the government risks “another winter of chaos” if urgent action is not taken to curb the spread of Covid, including mandatory face masks in stores and in public transport.
In a joint statement, unions including Usdaw, Unison, Unite, GMB and Aslef attacked the government’s “laissez-faire approach to dealing with the pandemic” after the prime minister insisted he didn’t was not yet time to impose new restrictions.
“We all want to beat Covid once and for all and avoid further blockages. But without decisive action now, we risk slipping into another winter of chaos, ”union leaders said, in a joint statement also signed by TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
The unions intervened as follows:
Union members work in retail, transport, healthcare and other industries where working from home is virtually impossible.
“With hundreds of workplace Covid outbreaks reported to health authorities every week, the events are grim reminders of last winter,” they said. “The government must act now to reduce the spread of the Covid. Failure to do so will endanger public health, frontline services and the economy. “
Their plea was accompanied by warnings in documents released by Sage’s expert panel, released on Friday, that early intervention is more effective than delayed action, as cases increase – although they did not call for immediate action.
“If the number of cases rises, earlier intervention would reduce the need for tougher, disruptive and longer lasting measures,” records a record-breaking Sage meeting held on October 14.
This echoed previous comments from the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that he should ‘go strong and go early’ to limit the spread of the virus.
Ministers said in September they would implement a ‘plan B’, including the return of compulsory mask wearing in public places and the reintroduction of homeworking, if the NHS was at risk of unsustainable pressure.
New infections recorded edged down to 49,298 on Friday. In the past seven days, 947 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, up 16% from a week earlier.
Boris Johnson, visiting a vaccination center in London, said: “The numbers we are seeing right now are very much in line with what we expected from the autumn and winter plan. He added that there was “absolutely nothing to indicate” that another lockdown might be needed.
The Sage documents suggested that working from home might be the most effective part of the plan.
According to a paper from the Sage Spi-M, Spi-B and EMG subgroups, “the reintroduction of homework, for those who can, may have the greatest impact on transmission outside of potential Plan B measures. “.
As the government insists the pressures facing the NHS are enduring, at the local level a growing number of public health directors (DPHs) have started to urge local people to take action, including the port masks and homework.
The Guardian has learned of at least a dozen areas where this is the case. Alice Wiseman, DPH Gateshead, said: ‘With the worrying increase in the number of cases and the tremendous pressure we are already seeing on NHS services, now is the time for all of us to do all we can to avoid reaching the point of crisis. Taking basic precautions now, like wearing face masks, working from home where possible, and keeping indoor spaces well ventilated, could help us avoid reverting to more disruptive restrictions.
“So while mandatory measures have not yet been introduced, I urge all of our communities to come together and take these simple but effective measures now. “
Health Secretary Sajid Javid reminded the public earlier this week of guidelines recommending the wearing of masks in crowded indoor spaces, but ministers continued to insist it remains a matter of personal choice, and Conservative MPs in Westminster rarely wear them.
In addition to the mandatory wearing of masks, the statement by union leaders called for reminding employers of their duty to conduct workplace risk assessments to show how they are avoiding the spread of Covid; and for an increase in statutory sickness benefits to prevent people from being forced back to work because they cannot afford to self-isolate.
Their advocacy comes after the NHS Confederation and the British Medical Association (BMA) sounded the alarm on behalf of NHS leaders and doctors earlier this week over the challenges facing the healthcare services.
The two organizations urged the government to immediately implement “plan B”. In addition to wearing masks and working from home, Plan B includes the introduction of vaccine passports for places such as nightclubs – a policy that would require a vote in parliament and is deeply unpopular with Tory MPs.
Labor has yet to call for Plan B to be triggered – although it is against ending compulsory masks in summer. Instead, Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth pointed to the precarious rollout of vaccine boosts and injections for 12-15 year olds – as part of the government’s Plan A.
While not ruling out new restrictions, ministers hope next week’s semester serves as a natural firewall for the virus, given its prevalence among school-aged children. The latest ONS infection survey showed 8% of 11-16 year olds had Covid in the week ending October 16 – far more than any other age group.
The government has also launched a marketing campaign, with ads to run in premium TV slots, to get the public to get their Covid boosters and flu shots as winter approaches.
The ministers plan to ask the Independent Joint Committee on Immunization and Immunization to close the gap between the second dose and the booster dose of the vaccine – although some government advisers believe it would make little difference.