“Learning lessons from the Covid crisis? A priority has to be a National Care Service”
Over Christmas, UNISON Cymru Wales contributed to newspaper Western Mail’s series on how the country has been affected by Covid. In this extract, regional secretary Karen Loughlin talks about what lessons should be learned for the future.
The pandemic has revealed the gross levels of inequality in Britain and how many people who deliver public services and keep our communities running are undervalued.
Many key workers who left their homes during lockdown to go to work and continue to do so under the latest lockdown, such as care and shop workers, are employed on minimum wage contracts. Others have worked from home or were furloughed, and there has been an increase of in-work poverty. Lockdown gave rise to a boom in online shopping delivered by people on exploitative rates of pay and employment conditions.
More people now than ever are forced to rely on food banks to survive. That there is a need for food banks at all is a scandal for one of the richest countries in the world.
The Covid virus has ripped through society, highlighting poor-standard housing and has adversely affected many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) members of our communities. Moving forward there needs to be a review as to why BAME people continue to be disproportionately affected by Covid.
This pandemic highlights that the Westminster Conservative government pays lip-service to the value of public service workers, clapping them for the cameras and then blocking pay increases for these same workers who have already undergone years of pay freezes or restraint. The claim the Tories care about working class communities has been shown to be untrue. Their actions demonstrate they are not the least bit interested in fairer redistribution of wealth.
Public services are at the heart of our towns and the glue that binds our communities. The UK Tory austerity over the last few years has weakened these services by constant underfunding and the pandemic illustrates how we need properly funded public services to support people. These savage spending cuts have resulted in local youth clubs, libraries and leisure centres disappearing; council spending on the vulnerable being squeezed and the potholes in the roads not being fixed.
We need a recovery which is built on investment in world-class public services and investment in public service workers.
The centre piece of this should be a National Care Service. For decades, Westminster governments have resisted improving social care, preferring it be provided ‘on the cheap’. Our care sector is broken and it’s time to build an institution that has the parity of the NHS and significant funding; that affords clients the excellent quality of care they deserve and care staff wages which reflect their value to society. The scale of this ambition and level of care can only be achieved by the state and not through private means.
Furlough shows how important the state is to people and how, if Westminster had the wit or nous to use that power for public good, it could be utilised to completely transform the way we live, not least, lifting people out of poverty.
Lockdown has also given us a glimpse of what the world could be like. Hearing birdsong instead of busy traffic has focused people’s attention that we should be doing more to protect the environment and leads us to question whether long commutes into work are necessary.
Lastly, Covid has shown politicians don’t have all the answers and it’s reinforced the need for governments to listen to and value people on the front line and the advice of their trade unions.