Invest in vital public services and learn pandemic lessons, says UNISON

Christina McAnea gives first annual conference address as general secretary

Addressing the UNISON annual conference earlier today (Wednesday) general secretary Christina McAnea urged the government to bring forward the start of the Covid public inquiry, ditch plans to compel nervous care workers to be jabbed and invest in the public services that have kept the UK running during the pandemic.

Christina McAnea said: “I’m incredibly proud to be speaking to you as the first woman general secretary in the history of our union. I must first pay tribute to my predecessor Dave Prentis. Under his leadership UNISON became the biggest union in the country.

“So much has happened in the two years since our last conference. Brexit, the Tories now have a massive majority in Westminster, and lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic.

“So many have been affected by this terrible virus, and have lost friends, colleagues and family members.

“Covid’s shone a spotlight on inequality at home and around the world. It’s highlighted the racism and discrimination all around us.

“It’s had a disproportionate impact on black people, women, disabled people and those on low incomes. This isn’t a coincidence, or bad luck, and it certainly isn’t down to life choices.

“It’s because they’re more likely to be in jobs that can’t be done from home. Whether it’s cleaners and catering staff, bus and delivery drivers, care and health workers, or those who empty our bins and bury the dead.

“These people and many others still had to go to work throughout each lockdown, however bad things were. That meant using public transport and perhaps working closely with people who don’t understand self-isolation or social distancing.

“Despite everything, public service workers have kept the country going during the pandemic. They’ve not made a fuss – they’ve just got on and done their jobs.

“Time and again though, key workers were needlessly exposed to danger because they weren’t given the protective equipment so desperately needed.

“Workers wearing PPE made from bin bags and masks from old bits of clothing. Care staff were given disposable face coverings and told to make them last a week. This must never happen again.

“Lessons must be learned from this crisis, so we’re better prepared for the next one. There’s no hiding from the fact the UK has one of the worst Covid death rates in the world.  

“The UK wasn’t prepared. Much of that’s down to ten years of Westminster cuts, austerity and underinvestment in public services. That’s why there must be an urgent public inquiry without delay.

“Those people who used the pandemic to make themselves rich must also be held to account. Cronies of government ministers, family members, and even ministers themselves – involved in shady deals where companies sprang up literally overnight, claiming to be able to get PPE deals that never materialised or were so shoddy they couldn’t be used.

“Even when services and equipment were provided, the profits made were eye-watering. If we don’t learn from these mistakes, we will inevitably end up repeating them with similar dire consequences.

“The virus has taught us who we really depend on when the chips are down. It wasn’t the hedge fund managers and management consultants, but our public services – stretched almost to breaking point – that will get us through.

“Despite years of cuts and government mismanagement, the NHS didn’t collapse under the enormous pressure it faced. Local government continued to hold communities together.

“But strong public services depend on people being paid and treated fairly. Governments in Scotland and Wales have rejected Westminster’s pay freeze. They’re committed to working with unions on improving pay and delivering a decent care system.

“In Westminster however, the Tories talk about their levelling-up agenda. But true levelling-up means an employment bill to end zero-hours contracts, and fire and rehire practices.

“Levelling up must also mean the real living wage as an absolute minimum and an end to the pay freeze; a commitment to rebuild local government services and a meaningful reform of social care.

“The only way out of the pandemic is for everyone that can to have their jabs. Encouragement has the best results and research shows coercion makes the nervous less likely to be vaccinated.

“The government’s sledgehammer approach with its compulsory vaccination announcement has created the risk that some care staff may simply walk away from an already understaffed, undervalued and underpaid sector.”

Notes to editors:
– The full text of Christina McAnea’s speech at UNISON’s annual conference, which runs from 15-17 June, is here.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

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