Where were you when you heard the Prime Minister say “from this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”? That Downing Street statement a year ago has become one of those pivotal moments we collectively all remember. Today, one year on, we reflect on this past year and remember those we have lost. But we also think about the future too. The pandemic will undoubtably have lessons for some many areas of our lives. Starting in our health and care systems but reaching far beyond that. Undoubtably, in time, there will be a full inquiry.
But I want to focus on where we might start in the world of work. The last year has been one of the most different and most difficult in our working lives. The hard work of Prospect members – like those in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) who have developed, approved and are now rolling out these vaccines – does give us hope that 2021 can be radically different to 2020. But the exact nature of the move to this new normal is still up for grabs. If we want it to be a better, fairer normal, here are three lessons that we should seize.
Firstly, that far from being a regulatory burden, workplace health and safety is now the critical enabler to business and wider economic success. We must bury the awful phrase ‘health and safety gone mad’ once and for all, along with the association between health and safety and ‘red tape’. Instead, we need an about-turn in funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We went into this crisis with an underfunded HSE that had lost more than half of its government funding since 2010 – and the cracks have been on full display as it has struggled to respond to the demands placed on it by the pandemic.
The damage done by a decade of damaging cuts won’t be reversed by sticking-plaster measures, but by a long-term commitment to a bigger, properly resourced HSE proudly championed by ministers. Most employers want to do the right thing and protect staff and customers, but many need more help to understand how to do it. But, where employers can’t or won’t take the right approach, having enough properly trained inspectors is crucial to HSE discharging its responsibility to enforce.
Secondly, as restrictions ease we must move beyond the simplistic and binary discussions between working from home and working from the office. It is clear that many office-based workers would value greater working from home than was seen before the pandemic. But it is equally clear that there are big challenges to moving that from a temporary to a permanent footing. For example, around protecting work life balance, maintaining collaboration or making sure all workers have access to a decent workspace, regardless of their home situation.
Most crucially, if employers are closing offices entirely, while workers are paying for larger homes to facilitate work, how can we make sure costs are not being transferred without compensation? Resolving these issues will need a new approach by companies to their workforces. Making sure that there is genuine partnership between owners, management and workforce representatives like unions will be way that the most successful organisations approach this. Government can help by setting out the framework and leading from the front on this, rather the cack-handed attempts of last year to stoke a culture war around the issue.
Finally, we must make sure that every worker has a stake and is properly protected in our society. Prior to the pandemic, the interests of too many workers were set against each other; the public sector against the private sector and self-employed workers against those who are employed. What we have seen in the last year is that this is a false distinction.
The private sector has found itself reliant of the state for both funding and infrastructure to survive. Private pharmaceutical companies have pioneered the production of vaccines, but they have only been able to do so with the support of our world leading public sector workers whether they are in the MHRA, public health, the NHS or our universities. The government must end the public sector pay freeze and continue to support sectors like aviation and parts of the creative sector that may take a little longer to restart. And we must also never again have a situation where some freelance workers are left out of support through no fault of their own. A new deal for them should start with proper workplace rights in the employment bill.
When we look back on this period of history, I am sure that the pandemic will be seen as a turning point. The direction of that turn though is still up for grabs. If we want life to be better for working people, it is vital that union members make their voice heard and that we shape the future that we all want to see.