Dave Prentis: Safety for all workers is UNISON’s bottom line

The past seven weeks have been difficult for all of us. For most of the country, there has been confinement at home, unable to see family and friends, and a deep anxiety about what the future will bring.

For many UNISON members, there has been the entirely different pressure of going to work, with all the health risks that entails, and the added fear of infecting family members. NHS workers and care workers in particular have worked in incredibly difficult circumstances, sometimes without the necessary equipment they need to ensure their safety.

Each week we take to our doorsteps and our windows to clap for them. But we also clap too for the countless other key workers who are also keeping our communities going at considerable risk to themselves and their families – refuse workers, school staff, postal workers, supermarket workers and delivery drivers.

This has been a tough couple of months – the toughest in our union’s history, and perhaps the toughest in a generation or more.

Whilst it is understandable that there is a desire to return – gradually – to something approaching normality, protecting key workers who have no choice but to go to work is absolutely paramount.

UNISON members know better than anyone that without a vibrant economy, there can be no future for public services – however that economy cannot be built on unsafe working conditions and lost lives.

In the next stage of our national and international effort to fight this virus, safety must be paramount – for working people, for public services and for those fighting to care for those in the most desperate need.

Throughout the crisis, we’ve been clear that we’re willing to work with the government and employers to get the approach right – to save lives.

Our constructive approach has meant more and better PPE reaching workplaces than would’ve been the case. It has meant, working with other unions, that the government’s furlough and job retention schemes have staved off some of the worst effects on families and individuals up and down the country.

But that constructive approach has never been a blank cheque for the government – far from it. We have spoken out, privately and publicly, about the impact that errors, delays and misjudgements have had on our members, on public services and on our communities.

Right now, the greatest risk we face is confusion, when what will save lives is clarity. Yet since the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Sunday evening, people are now more bewildered than they are reassured. This is made worse now that England is out of step with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The UK needs to get back to work and school, but it must be a safe return for workers and their families. Otherwise all the benefits of the lockdown will be squandered, and a second wave could prove too much for the NHS and other frontline services.

If we want to save lives, if we want to save our NHS, we need clarity and careful planning. The government needs to work more closely with both employers and trade unions to move us out of lockdown, on a timetable guided by science and safety.

Our members have worked so hard to battle the virus, protect our communities and maintain the lockdown. Now they need the government to work just as hard to ensure that any relaxation of the lockdown – whenever it comes in different parts of the UK – is safe for all workers.

That is UNISON’s bottom line.