Coronavirus news round-up

Read all the latest UniteLive news on the coronavirus epidemic

Reading time: 12 min

In our latest coronavirus news round-up on Thursday (April 2), UniteLive highlights all the holes in the Universal Credit system, after it was revealed that nearly 1m people signed up to the state benefit in the last two weeks alone.


The unprecedented surge in Universal Credit applications has shown that even with new government schemes meant to cover 80 per cent of both employees’ and self-employed people’s earnings amid the UK-wide lockdown, far too many are still falling through the cracks.


Unite Community national co-ordinator highlighted in particular the problems with the five-week wait period for the first payment.


“The government has said that people can take out emergency advance payments to cover the five-week wait period but these are loans and must be paid back,” she said. “It therefore plunges people into poverty from day one. People don’t have savings so it’s brutal. Rent arrears immediately stack up.”


You can read our full story here.


Heroes from the frontline

UniteLive has in the last few weeks featured voices from the frontline of the coronavirus epidemic, and this week we hear from Unite rep and supermarket lorry driver John Evans.


He is one of the legion of delivery drivers selflessly making sure the nation is supplied with food during the coronavirus lockdown.


John said that drivers, along with retail staff and other essential workers, are paying an emotional toll for going out to work day after day when the rest of the country is in lockdown.


“I’ve got a wife and three school age children, so of course the whole situation is very difficult, even without having to go out and work,” he said. “In our industry there’s a lot of people like me, even as grown adults we’re quite frightened. To a certain extent we are privileged to be in work and given more work but the worry is still there.”


Read our full interview with John here.


More on PPE

On Wednesday (March 23), the issue of personal protection equipment (PPE) for health and other critical staff was a major topic of discussion. The conversation continues today as Unite highlights that new PPE guidance will only work if supplies get to the frontline.


Unite was commenting on the much-awaited revised PPE guidance for health workers in the UK from Public Health England, Public Health Wales, Health Protection Scotland, The Public Health Agency of Northern Ireland and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges today (April 2).


Unite is still very concerned about potential logjams in the supply system in getting the actual PPE to the frontline fast enough.


Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said, “The much-awaited revised guidance on PPE for NHS staff is welcome. The guidelines have been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO).


“But this new advice will only be truly effective if PPE supplies reach NHS staff in sufficient amounts in the coming days – this is a national priority.


“How this guidance translates in reality for staff on the NHS frontline in the daily battle against coronavirus will be something we will be monitoring in the days and weeks ahead. The safety of NHS staff must be the top priority as they risk their own health, and even their lives, to save others.


“We do have continuing concerns about the supply chain regarding the delivery of PPE in a timely, adequate and free-flowing fashion. Ministers must be alert to any hiccups in the supply chain and act immediately to iron them out.”


Earlier this week, Unite, which embraces the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association (CPHVA), voiced concerns about the lack of PPE for health visitors and community nurses who make home visits to families with new born babies and young children.


Unite is also concerned about PPE for the thousands working in social care settings, such as care homes, who, the union said, are the ‘forgotten army’.


Doctors in Unite weighs in

Doctors in Unite, part of the wider Unite union, said in a joint statement today alongside organisations including the British Medical Association (BMA), Keep our NHS Public, and Health Campaigns Together among others that the government must be transparent over the issue of PPE.


“There have been repeated assurances from Government that there is plenty of appropriate PPE,” the statement read. “However it is widely reported from the frontline that PPE is in very short supply and that what is available does not adequately protect from infection, deliveries do not arrive and that hotlines that have been set up do not work. In desperation many health and social care workers have taken it upon themselves to source their own equipment from DIY stores and some have made agreements with local secondary schools to make visors on 3D printers. This situation is wholly unacceptable.


“Doctors in Unite demand transparency from the Government about the real state of affairs with respect to the current reserves, ongoing production and distribution of PPE. Health and social care workers are working long hours in stressful conditions in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. The Government owe it to us to be honest and acknowledge our very real and widespread experience with shortage of appropriate PPE and explain to us why it is lacking,” the statement continued.


“It is the duty of the employer to ensure that the working environment is safe for employees. As a Trade Union we contend that the current situation in health and social care with respect to Covid 19 and PPE is not safe for either patients or workers. We believe that health and social care workers should not work without appropriate PPE, as to do so endangers the worker and the patient. We do not believe that health and social care workers, including porters and cleaners, should inadvertently carry infection from one patient to another through lack of disposable equipment.”


Read more here.


Commit to job retention scheme call

Ever since the government announced its jobs retention scheme, in which the government agrees to cover 80 per cent of wages for workers forced to stop working because of the epidemic, many employers have been shockingly reticent to commit to the scheme.


Unite has called out these employers who are failing to support their workforce from falling into extreme hardship.


In the most recent instance, Staffordshire firm Faurecia Interiors is under increasing pressure to commit to registering staff under the scheme.


Following repeated attempts to engage with the auto-interiors firm, which has refused to confirm that laid off workers will be registered under the scheme, Unite has contacted Faurecia shareholder PSA and its customer JLR.


The union has asked the car makers to pressure Faurecia ‘into following the example of many other companies in the automotive sector by issuing a guarantee’.


Faurecia, which employs about 400 people at two sites at Fradley in Staffordshire as well as at other locations across the UK, has made no mention to staff that they will be registered under the job retention scheme.


Instead the firm has told the workforce they will be laid off until at least 20 April, during which time they can either take unpaid leave, any remaining annual holiday or be paid in advance using a controversial banked hours scheme that is deeply unpopular with staff.


Unite regional officer Melvyn Palmer said, “Requests by both individual staff and the union for confirmation that Faurecia is intending to register its workers under the job retention scheme have been completely ignored.


“Meanwhile the banked hours scheme Faurecia seems to be suggesting that staff use instead is completely inappropriate. It will leave people in debt to the company and either working for nothing once operations resume or having to pay a large lump sum when their finances will have already taken a battering,” he added.


“The union has now contacted the firm’s shareholder PSA, as well as its customer JLR. We have informed them of Faurecia’s appalling behaviour and asked them to pressure the firm into following the example of many other companies in the automotive sector by issuing a guarantee.”


“Faurecia needs to understand that Unite is not going to let this issue lie and that the union’s actions will continue to build until workers receive confirmation that they will be included under the scheme.”


London local authorities bulldoze through powers to discipline workers

Unite has also today (April 2) expressed serious concerns over plans seen by the union which will give local authority employers in London new powers to redeploy workers under the threat of disciplinary action.


Rather than harnessing the growing spirit of volunteerism, Local Government employers in London are attempting to bulldoze through excessive new measures during the current COVID 19 crisis. But Unite will oppose these changes at a time of great anxiety amongst local government workers across the capital.


Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said, “We understand that the capital faces a health crisis and local government workers are rising to the challenge but this is the wrong approach. It’s a poor way to treat public service workers who are  providing vital services day in, day out.


“We have seen how people have come forward to volunteer all over the country – yet London councils seem to think that volunteering should be accompanied with threats – that is not volunteering, it’s force. We have already had some members in London reporting that they have been threatened with disciplinary action.”


“Local Government employers must quickly drop these measures and continue to harness the spirit of volunteerism rather than resorting to threats and damaging morale at a time of crisis. Workers are pulling together but threats could quickly lead to fear and anger.”


The proposed new ‘framework’ from London Local Authorities is entitled “Deployment of Staff in Emergency Situations for London Local Authorities”. The ‘framework’ is intended to take precedence over normal local government HR policies.


Grangemouth based firms to furlough workers

While some employers have refused to commit to furloughing workers on the government’s jobs retention scheme to ensure the majority of their wages are paid in crisis, others have done right by their workforce.


Unite today (April 2) welcomed the decision by a number of significant employers based in Grangemouth to furlough their workers.


Bilfinger UK Limited which employs around 230 people made the decision for all non-essential employees who cannot work from home, including those who may have been recently made redundant, and also including those on fixed term contracts.


The Grangemouth based company provides a range of energy maintenance services including at the INEOS oil refinery and on the Forties Pipeline System at Kinneil. In addition, Veolia which assists business with waste, water and energy management has also agreed to furlough their ‘non-essential’ employees who cannot work from home on 100 per cent pay.


Unite regional industrial officer Scott Foley, said, “We warmly welcome the decision by Bilfinger and Veolia to furlough employees and not to make the totally unnecessary decision to make their non-essential workforce redundant.


“Both these Grangemouth based firms have taken a lead in how workers should be treated during this pandemic. The financial pain that could have been inflicted on the workers if they had been made redundant instead of being furloughed doesn’t bear thinking about. We want to thank both firms for engaging positively with Unite in order to find a solution that helps both the workers and the company.”


British Airways deal

In more good news, Unite reported today (April 2) that the union reached agreement with British Airways about how workers will be protected during the coronavirus crisis.


The key parts of the deal include British Airways committing to a modified, more enhanced version of the government’s job retention scheme, so that workers will be furloughed on 80 per cent of pay. However, unlike the government scheme, there will be no cap on earnings.


Workers will be able to divert their pension contributions into their pay for a short period of time (contributions are between 9-18 per cent of earnings), and there will also be no unpaid temporary lay offs, nor any redundancies during this period. The redundancy process that had already begun has been halted.


Unite national officer for aviation Oliver Richardson said, “Given the incredibly difficult circumstances that the entire aviation sector is facing this is as good a deal as possible for our members. The deal protects the jobs of BA staff and, as far as possible, also protects their pay. This is what can and should be done to protect workers during this unprecedented time for the airline sector.”


The deal will now be circulated to Unite’s members at British Airways for their final approval. This is a developing story – stay tuned on UniteLive soon for more.



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