Our public service heroes must not pay the price for Rishi Sunak’s mistakes

Rehana Azam
© Twitter/@RishiSunak

As GMB national secretary for public services, I have spent the pandemic with NHS workers, paramedics, cleaners, caterers, care workers, local government employees – the public service workers who are seeing us through this crisis. Last week, I got my vaccine from an NHS worker through an NHS system that – in complete contrast to the track and trace debacle – has delivered an efficient and professional programme that is vaccinating the nation.

What were those workers rewarded with in the budget today? A real terms pay cut. The Chancellor can dance around his living room with his ministerial red box all he wants. For public service workers, the Budget has been exposed as a worthless gesture. When it comes down to it, the big love in has amounted to another real terms pay cut – ‘immense praise’ but no pounds in their pockets.

The Chancellor said he has protected the poorest during this pandemic, but statutory sick pay (SSP) remains a scandal. In fact, SSP will rise by just 50p a week in April – another real terms cut. When the history books are written, I believe that the government’s abject failure to reform poverty sick pay rates will be viewed as a public health catastrophe. The evidence is clear – poverty sick pay is a cause of higher infection rates. Even when they are ill, low income workers feel they must continue to attend work because they cannot afford to isolate on SSP.

The care sector is in crisis, but there was not a word on social care in the Budget. This, in the week when HC One, one of the UK’s largest care providers, announced it would sell 52 homes and close another four. Care is on its knees. Local authorities face an estimated £5.3bn funding gap by 2023/24. Workers are calling for real help, not applause and today those workers – who are much more likely to be lower paid, women or from Black Asian minority ethnic backgrounds – were ignored. The coronavirus has torn through care settings where working conditions are the most inadequate; this is an employment and public health emergency. But once again, the Chancellor failed to grasp the nettle.

Of course, there are things to be welcomed. The already announced extension to the furlough scheme will help protect jobs, although we should be mindful that the job retention scheme may be delaying redundancies in some industries unless additional support for those sectors is produced. Increasing corporation tax is sensible and the right thing to do, but delaying the increase for two years gives the global giants who have profited from Covid a free pass.

A windfall tax could be used to fund public works for the public good, such as investment in energy infrastructure, putting work into UK factories and yards, increasing rail capacity and building more energy efficient homes, thereby stimulating the economy and sending higher revenues to the Treasury in the long term.

The inescapable fact is that, despite the Chancellor’s slick social media operation, we need this level of large scale investment because the handling of the pandemic has been bungled from start to finish. As a result, the UK has been hit harder than any other major economy. Those mistakes must not be paid for by our public service heroes. This recovery must not be like the last.

The UK’s 5.5 million public sector workers, and millions more outsourced public service workers, cannot be ignored. Freezing their pay is economic self-sabotage; public service wages are spent in communities, not squirrelled away in offshore bank accounts, which is why around half the cost of public sector pay is ultimately recouped by the Exchequer.

By contrast, real terms cuts only mean higher turnover, a demoralised workforce, and poorer public services that require large scale ‘catch-up’ investment down the line. We all will end up paying the price for the Conservatives’ false economy, and public service workers will not forget the lesson at the next election.

We have already battled through a decade of public sector pay freezes and caps. Long-serving local government workers’ pay has been devalued by a quarter and NHS workers have lost 15% in real terms. I am proud that the GMB campaigned against that pernicious policy, and busted it. Now we must all stand fast against this new wave of austerity politics.

We all know there are challenging times ahead. We will only overcome the challenges we face as a nation if we reward and build those who have borne the heaviest burden during Covid, and we will fail if yet more weight is placed on their shoulders. If the government is set on that destructive course, then it will be met with the full anger and the collective strength of the trade union movement. We beat the pay freeze once before, and now we will do it again. Sign our petition here.

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