In mid-March, the government announced that all of those over 70 and those with underlying health conditions were to be regarded as belonging to a “vulnerable group” of the population. They were advised to stay at home as much as possible and practice “particularly stringent” social distancing for a period of 12 weeks. Those with jobs were advised that if at all possible, they should no longer travel to their workplace and should work from home.
With everyone currently being encouraged to stay at home, the “vulnerable group” is sometimes forgotten about and they are also confused with those considered “extremely vulnerable”, who are advised to “shield” and not leave home at all. When the lockdown is eased further or ended, questions will remain as to whether those in both vulnerable groups should continue with social distancing or not.
At the time of writing, at least 100 NHS staff and healthcare workers have died. A high proportion of these – in the region of 60% – were from a BAME background. The government has commissioned an urgent inquiry into this, and NHS England has advised that all BAME staff should be risk-assessed and possibly reassigned to other roles.
Analysis we are conducting suggests that a statistically significant number of all those who have died had some sort of underlying health condition. Our exercise is not yet complete, and we need to be cautious. It may be that an “underlying health condition” referred to in a newspaper article may be one not considered relevant or significant in terms of morbidity. If, however, some of those who died were more vulnerable because of their health, this would be extremely worrying.
Doctors, nurses and care workers cannot, in the normal scheme of things, work from home and it is understandable that those with underlying conditions should wish to continue working. They are, for the most part, extremely dedicated individuals who wish, in this time of great crisis, to continue making a difference. At the same time, employers have a moral duty to ensure that employees are not subjected to undue risk.
No-one can live on fresh air alone, even if there has been more of it about since the lockdown began. The government does not guarantee any protection of pay for those who stay away from work. Though it is now the case that some BAME NHS staff may be redeployed, there is no legal compulsion for an employer to consider moving an employee into a lower risk role. So it’s not very surprising that many people should feel they have no choice but to carry on. This is however something that the government and employers need to be challenged on. Otherwise, we are likely to see many more deaths.
by Andrew Berry, Trade Union Link Officer, Islington North CLP, Member in Mildmay; & Brian Gardner, General Meeting delegate, Islington South CLP
Andrew and Brian are coordinators of the Heard Community blog which focuses on employment, disability and vulnerability issues re the coronavirus crisis: https://heardcommunity.wordpress.com