'Tiers' of woe
UniteLIVE investigates the new lockdown system – and calls for urgent government support for workers facing financial hardship
When the government first announced its new three-tier system of lockdowns earlier this week, it was ostensibly meant to bring some clarity to a local lockdown system that had been marked by chaos and confusion.
But chaos still reigns, especially now that the government has so far refused to offer more support to workers across regions and lockdown tiers who face devastating financial hardship if the government doesn’t step up.
London was among the latest major cities to be moved into a higher tier-2 lockdown – the change will come into effect just after midnight on Friday (October 16) night tonight.
Under a tier-2 lockdown, businesses may remain open but people cannot mix with others outside their household or support bubble in any setting indoors – whether that’s in someone’s home or down the pub.
People under a tier-2 lockdown are allowed to meet in groups of up to six in any outdoor setting, including in private and pub gardens.
While Unite regional officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull welcomed measures to protect the public and the NHS from the virus, he said they would have a “devastating impact” on workers in the hospitality industry if more support was not made urgently available.
“These restrictions must be accompanied by immediate support for hospitality jobs,” he said.
“Not to do so risks a tidal wave of job losses, as businesses struggle to survive under even harsher constraints and a further downturn in trade. Thousands of hospitality workers, who earn an average wage of just £8.84 per hour and often do not have guaranteed hours, will be plunged below the poverty line if urgent help is not forthcoming.”
Turnbull urged the government to at the very least make available the support which is offered to workers in regions and cities under tier-3 lockdowns, where many businesses such as pubs are forced to close and the government then pays two-thirds of workers’ wages.
But more than this, Turnbull said the government must immediately increase the wage support it offers from two-thirds – or 67 per cent – to 80 per cent, which was the level initially paid by the state to furloughed workers when the pandemic first began.
“Low paid workers will not be able to survive for long on just two thirds of their wages, even if they do manage to retain their jobs,” he said.
“That is why Unite is calling for the urgent introduction of a wide-ranging rescue package for UK hospitality, including a sector specific job retention scheme that supports at least 80 per cent of wages for furloughed staff.”
Liverpool and Lancashire
So far, the Liverpool region is the only area in England which has been placed into the highest tier-3 level lockdown, with Lancashire set to join the city from just after midnight on Saturday (October 17).
Under a tier-3 lockdown, socialising with people you do not live with is banned in most indoor or outdoor settings, with the exception of meeting in groups of up to six in public outdoor spaces such as parks.
Pubs and bars which do not serve food as a substantial meal will be forced to close under a tier-3 lockdown. Most other businesses may remain open, but in Liverpool, gyms have also been forced to close.
In Lancashire, gyms will remain open, but from Monday (October 19), casinos, bingo halls, bookmakers and betting shops and soft play areas must close, and car boot sale will not be permitted.
The North West has among the highest infection rates in the country and while a stricter lockdown may help bring down worryingly skyrocketing coronavirus cases, Unite emphasised the fact that the region needs higher levels of government financial support, alongside a functioning test and trace system.
Commenting, Unite regional secretary for the North West Ritchie James said earlier this week, “If the people of Merseyside and the surrounding areas are to be asked to put themselves through another lockdown, they must do so with the knowledge that there is a rock-solid tracking system that will allow the economy to open up again without major disruptions. For all Boris Johnson’s boasts of ‘a world beating’ test and trace system, the country is yet to see even an adequate one materialise.
“The localised lockdown support for workers forced to stay at home is also inadequate, especially for those on low wages,” he added. “People can barely afford to live on the minimum wage as it is, so how does the government expect them to live on just two thirds of that? Rishi Sunak needs to rethink his approach and provide at least the level of support provided when the jobs retention scheme was announced in March.”
Many towns and cities in the West Midlands region have, like London, also been placed under tier-2 lockdown, where mixing between households indoors is banned. Some of these cities include Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Solihull.
It is estimated that 11 more areas in the region could soon also placed in the high-risk tier-2 category lockdown within days.
On Friday (October 16), Unite launched a West Midlands SOS for jobs campaign, to highlight the vital manufacturing jobs in the region which are threatened amid the second wave of the pandemic.
With the West Midlands at the heart of the UK’s manufacturing sector and with thousands of jobs in industries such as automotive and aerospace, which have been heavily affected by the pandemic, the region is on a cliff edge of the loss of tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs, plunging families into poverty, Unite highlighted.
The situation is made more complicated with much of the region having to also cope with highly restrictive tier-2 lockdown rules.
To launch its regional campaign, Unite held an event in Birmingham today and invited West Midlands MPs to attend.
Commenting ahead of the launch, Unite regional secretary for the West Midlands Annmarie Kilcline said, “The West Midlands is the heartland of UK manufacturing and hundreds of thousands of workers across the region are facing huge uncertainty as furlough comes to an end.
“It is apparent that with a second wave of Covid-19 already hitting the region and lockdown ensuing, that far more government assistance is needed to protect jobs.
“Employers are clearly unconvinced by the government’s job support scheme which does not provide sufficient financial support and is too short-term in duration to protect many jobs,” she added.
“If we are to avoid plunging the West Midlands over a job loss cliff edge the government must provide further support immediately.”
Northern Ireland will from Friday evening (October 16) at 6pm impose an even stricter lockdown than tier-3 measures, taking what some have called a ‘circuit-breaker’ approach, where all hospitality venues will be forced to close except for takeaways and deliveries.
Businesses offering close contact services such as nail and hair salons will also be forced to shut down. Schools will be closed from Friday until November 2.
While the Northern Ireland Executive said businesses in Northern Ireland that are forced to shut will be able to access additional financial support, there is as yet not additional wage support available for workers who have been locked out of work, besides the two-thirds wage subsidy offered by central government’s Jobs Support Scheme.
Unite said that this is nowhere near enough for workers, especially those on low wages, who face the very real prospect of destitution.
Unite hospitality organiser in Northern Ireland Neil Moore said,“For the second time in six months hospitality workers have been hung out to dry.
“Many of our members were forced into debt during the previous period of closure when they received a bare 80 per cent of what were already low wages. This pittance will force many more into poverty and struggling to put food on the table. We have had members on the phone today having to cancel fuel orders; worried about paying their mortgages; or rent never mind how they can deliver a Christmas for their kids.
“Our members made clear to us that a rescue package must be put in place that focuses on workers – not simply employers,” he added. “With the additional funding promised, Stormont must step up and do their part – that means a guarantee to properly support hospitality workers’ incomes. Our members can’t survive on a ‘portion’ of a minimum wage.
“Additional supports are also needed for the hospitality industry, made contingent on bosses keeping workers in jobs, protecting their full wage and preventing a round of hidden job losses through ‘redundancy by zero-hours’ or fire/rehire arrangements.”
‘Poverty and destitution’ without more support
The Labour party has echoed Unite’s calls for more government financial support for cities and regions placed under new restrictions, alongside a robust track and trace system.
Responding to health secretary Matt Hancock’s Commons statement on Thursday (October 15), when new restrictions were announced for London and other cities, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said, “Let’s be clear, this public health intervention is not backed up by with a financial package to mitigate its impact on jobs and livelihoods.”
“More people will fall into poverty and destitution. Families across Bury and Bolton, small businesses across Burnley and Hyndburn and London have been failed by the Chancellor.
“A stronger package of financial support is needed for Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas,” he added. “The British people have made tremendous sacrifice already and now we are heading into the bleakest of winters.”
CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT THE DIFFERENT TIERS MEAN?
You’re not alone! Fortunately BBC News has an accessible explanation here.
By Hajera Blagg