In the Hexham Courant yesterday (25 March 2020), ‘Concerns were raised by workforce at Egger’, that they’re not clear whether they are included in the government’s current list of ‘essential work’.


Many other workers in the constituency are still at work, too.  And there’s wide-spread confusion for workers and the trade union reps trying to advise and protect their members.


UNITE held discussions with their human resources department about their members’ fears over the virus.  Steps were then taken to improve the situation, but there is still confusion over whether they are ‘essential’ workers under the government’s vague terms.


One worker said: “I was expecting Johnson to announce my type of work would be told to close today but this hasn’t happened, so my workplace is still open and I’m the only person in the office.  We’re all worried about who should be at work, especially those of the age stated in the government’s recommendations so far, i.e. 60 years and older.  There is concern that workers feel obliged to come to work, even when suffering with COPD, and those workers that live with immune-compromised family and are very worried about infecting them.”


There seems to be an uneven approach to reassuring workers, and many have now received ‘letters’ of one form or another stating that the bearer is a ‘key worker’.  Some of these letters are given out by organisations such as care homes, etc.


GMB spokesperson: said that “There’s not much more we as a union can do to protect workers asked to come in, as long as the government’s guidelines are in place”.


“Of course, people can self-isolate if they wish, but many are reluctant to do this as they will be put on sick pay or Statutory Sick Pay which many fear is inadequate.


The misconception arises because of the vague term ‘key workers’.  Government state that you should only go to work if it is ‘absolutely necessary’, but the government’s definition of ‘absolutely necessary’ is that you can’t do your job from home, not that you’ve got to do a job that is necessary to enable the state’s effective reaction to the virus, such as ours.


The 80% pay entitlement that the government has announced as sick pay is uncertain, too, because there is no clear advice for employers or employees on when and how to implement it.

Meanwhile, the letters that we’ve been expecting which go to vulnerable workers are about 3 weeks too late, because people with COPD, people who’ve had heart attacks, and diabetes sufferers are still going to work until this week – in my view, the government’s response has been too little, too late.”


Another Labour activist said that in his experience, as a retired mental health nurse, he’s been keeping abreast of how the government has reacted to protect those with mental health difficulties, and says that: “People are reacting quite badly, and certainly are in need of official reassurance from these letters, which should have gone out much earlier.”


Meanwhile, in the schools system, our activist posts: “Update on my school: I was told to lockdown the school, and direct my team to step down, on full pay.  They’ve been amazing and never made one complaint.  I was later sent to another special needs school in the City, where there are only three staff and two children.   I’m so glad I have come, because otherwise they couldn’t have opened.  The two children are having a great time dancing and doing art!  Well worth the long day!


I also got a letter to say that I’m a ‘key worker’ in case I am challenged.  UNISON worked with council staff in publishing these letters.”


On a general note, in the Guardian today, Frances O’Grady, TUC Leader, said: Frances O’Grady, the director general of the TUC, said the government needed to crack down on non-essential companies making staff attend work, telling ministers they needed to directly intervene if employers flouted the rules.

“Companies like Sports Direct shouldn’t be putting their profits before people’s lives. No one in non-essential services should be forced to go to work. And no one should be sacked for following official instructions and staying home,” she said.