As the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic grows each day, the government on Monday (March 16) announced stricter social distancing measures, including advising the public to limit all non-essential travel and contact.
Prime minister Boris Johnson urged all Britons to stay away from pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres, while those who show even mild symptoms of the virus should self-isolate for 14 days, including everyone who lives in the same household. Anyone who can work from home should, the government advised.
From today (March 17), Britons have also been advised against all non-essential travel abroad for the next 30 days.
While Unite in principle welcomed the more stringent measures to help tackle the spread of the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, the union lambasted the government for not following up such advice with a support package to help stem widespread financial hardship.
Unite called on the government to urgently take action to support the many hundreds of thousands of workers who stand to lose their jobs or be denied liveable sick pay in sectors such as hospitality and food and drink — which have all been plunged into crisis amid the outbreak.
Unite has also called for an urgent cross-party working group with representatives from the UK government, Scottish government, trade unions, and the trade bodies, UK Hospitality and the Scottish Tourism Alliance.
“We are very concerned about the prime minister’s advice to stay away from pubs, restaurants and theatres without announcing at the same time a contingency package, including financial support, for staff who may be laid off without any arrangements for their salary to be paid,” said Unite national officer for the food and drink industry Joe Clarke.
“This could have a major adverse impact of their ability to pay mortgages and rent, and provide for their families,” he added. “We fully understand the precarious times we live in with the spread of coronavirus, but it is not enough to be advising the public to stay away from pubs and restaurants where we have many members on low pay.This may ultimately result in those workers been laid off with only five days lay-off pay under current arrangements.”
Clarke highlighted the five-week wait for initial universal credit payments if laid-off workers were forced to claim benefits, which he called “completely unacceptable”.
“If people are to get through this difficult time they need support from government and considerably more support than that offered currently. By only advising people to stay away from pubs and restaurants, it puts all the onus on the owners who won’t have recourse to claim from their insurance policies.”
“The government should step in more forcibly to provide a financial support system, otherwise it could herald the death knell for many well-loved pubs and restaurants.”
Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull warned that the hospitality industry was “under grave threat” and added that this was why the union was “calling today for this taskforce to be set up to take urgent action to protect workers in a sector which is a major generator of wealth for the economy. It can’t be sacrificed and the workers must be protected during this period.”
The union has called for a five-point plan to help protect workers in sectors such as food and drink and hospitality. The plan would include removing the minimum £114 a week threshold, under which workers are not entitled to claim for statutory sick pay. The government should also ensure full company sick pay, with 75 per cent paid by the government and 25 per cent paid by the employer — as is done in Denmark.
There must be no opportunistic redundancies, and all workers must be given personal protective equipment appropriate to their roles during the epidemic. Vitally, the union is calling on the government to engage with workers who know the industry and how to save it.
The serious threat to hospitality workers’ livelihoods was laid bare in a new Unite survey, in which 90 per cent of workers reported that there were no plans in their workplace for those who fall ill or face self-isolation.
When asked about their main concerns during the outbreak, 78 percent of those surveyed said that they were worried that they would not be able to pay bills and cover living costs, 69 percent said they feared reduced income and 65 percent were fearful of infecting family or friends.
Meanwhile, only 59 per cent reported their employer had improved hygiene during the outbreak to limit risk, and only 42 per cent said that hand washing and sanitising facilities had been provided. Nearly 40 per cent reported their hours had been cut.
Tellingly, only 1.8 per cent of the 500 people surveyed said their employer had guarantees of full pay for those who were to fall ill or forced to self-isolate.
“The results of this survey are deeply shocking and will highlight the need for urgent action by the UK Government as it is clear that government inaction is leaving workers in precarious employment vulnerable and is likely to result in serious public health concerns,” said Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson. “Workers are being pressurised to work – both financially and organisationally – and this will result in serious public health outcomes.”
Meanwhile, the aviation sector is also now facing an existential threat after the sector has been forced to cancel thousands of fights and ground hundreds of planes as a result of the epidemic.
Unite is calling on the government to ensure workers have a seat at the table, after transport secretary Grant Shapps said this week he planned to meet with aviation executives to discuss support for the industry.
Unite has not yet been invited to such a meeting despite being in numerous negotiations with airlines, airports and companies in their supply chain about unpaid leave, temporary lay-offs and redundancies.
“Workers throughout the entire aviation sector are incredibly fearful about their futures and it would be wrong of the government to exclude their voice from future negotiations,” said Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland.
“The government should not be simply providing financial support to the airports, airlines and other aviation employers but they must ensure that the workforce are also protected through this crisis.”
Unite has put forward a four-point plan for government support of the aviation sector. These points include the government making contributions to workers’ pay and potentially taking a stake in airlines and airports to ensure their survival. Loan relief, a delay in the payment of taxes and duties imposed on airlines as well as the possibly support of routes through subsidies have also formed part of Unite’s survival plan for the aviation industry and the protection of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
“The coronavirus (COVID-19) is creating unprecedented challenges and it is essential that all stakeholders are fully involved in working on the solutions to the existential problems the sector is facing,” Holland went on to say.
“Other European countries are providing direct financial assistance to workers and the UK government must follow suit and provide similar support.”
Stay tuned on UniteLive for the latest on the coronavirus epidemic.