People must have confidence their workplace is safe as we learn to live with Covid
At long last a new normal is emerging in workplaces across the UK, as the vaccine programme provides greater protection against the threat of coronavirus.
As we enter this new stage of transition from pandemic to endemic, the country is crying out for leadership and a practical plan to ensure that Britain at work is safe, secure and supported.
The government announced this week that Plan B restrictions will be lifted from the 24 January, allowing for a greater return to normal life. But this “new normal” has exposed new problems.
One in seven businesses, and almost half of large businesses, are facing staff shortages, while workers continue to endure another pay squeeze.
The furlough scheme was one of the undoubted successes of the public policy response to the pandemic. But Ministers must build on it and set up a permanent short-time working scheme means that workers and companies have no protection against sudden shocks to demand – such as those which may come from a future variant or the transition to net zero.
Meanwhile our public services face a huge backlog at a time when vacancy and sickness rates are high. Many staff are simply exhausted.
The continued failure to fix our broken sick pay system leaves workers with impossible choices
Far too many workplace environments are still not Covid Secure, with almost a third of workers reporting their employer has taken none of the most protective actions to reduce the impact of Covid.
And the continued failure to fix our broken sick pay system leaves workers with impossible choices. Ministers should make doing the right thing and self-isolating possible for everyone – by paying everyone decent sick pay when they need it.
These are not inevitable consequences of the virus, but the result of government choices.
Yet in the last two years we have learned a lot about how we can live and work with the virus, while minimising its impact on lives and livelihoods.
Thanks to the NHS, the successful vaccine programme means we can look to build back better in 2022, delivering the high wage, high productivity economy, and the ability to enjoy our lives without fear.
Ministers must seize this opportunity, working with unions and businesses to deliver safe and decent work for everyone in 2022.
Yesterday I set out the TUC’s six-point plan to make sure the new normal is better and fairer.
First, ministers must bring unions and business together in a “working better” taskforce. The taskforce should set out a clear plan to address skills and workforce shortages and deliver the government’s promise of a high-wage, high-productivity economy.
Second, everyone must have the right to fair flexible working arrangements, wherever and however they work.
Not everyone can work from home. But every job can be worked flexibly – and every worker should have that right, whether it be flexitime, job sharing, annualised hours, term-time only working, compressed hours or mutually-agreed predictable hours.
Third, we must make our public services – hollowed out by austerity – more resilient. And that means investing in our public sector workforce.
This is how public services can recover from Covid, address backlogs and cope with the pressure that any future new variants will place on them.
Fourth, there is issue of workplace safety. Workers need to have confidence that where they work is safe.
After years of cuts, the Health and Safety Executive and other enforcement bodies need the resources to crack down on bad bosses who put staff and communities at risk.
Fifth, we must boost workers’ financial security, and protect their livelihoods, come what may.
Let’s give families protection against any new variants by fixing sick pay, raising universal credit and putting in place a permanent short-time working scheme that protects jobs during times of economic turbulence.
Finally, now is the time to banish global vaccine inequality – and in doing so, protect us all from the threat of new variants.
Taken together, this is an agenda for working people to thrive in the new normal – and one where workers and businesses can look forward to the future with more certainty and confidence.
After everything we’ve all gone have through, it is the very least we all deserve.
Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.
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