Retired members: Don’t make older people pay for the pandemic

The union’s retired members come together virtually, discussing a wide range of issues, determined as ever to make their voices heard

Last week saw the first UNISON retired member’s conference in two years. The event, held virtually, showed retired members’ continued support for trade union ideals and the aims of UNISON.

With 280 members registered to take part, it also highlighted their determination that their voice be heard.

The last 18 months have been an ordeal for many older people and the conference agenda reflected this.

Conference heard how the high numbers of deaths among care home residents provided a damning indictment of government policy over the pandemic. Delegates were adamant that now, more than ever, a national care service was needed to make sure this never happens again.

Making the case for a properly regulated care service, John Duncan of Devon County branch explained how his partner was exploited by the private care service she worked for, saying: “She wasn’t paid for travel, had to provide her own phone and the only training she received was via a video that she had to pay £30 for.”

Conference was united in its view that the benefits of retired people, such as the winter fuel allowance and the bus pass, should not be the price paid for the pandemic.

Rosie Macgregor, chair of the national retied members’ committee referenced Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, saying: “We all know there is no such thing in life as a free dinner. It looks like those in power are going to try to make the older people of this nation pay for all those free dinners.”

Instead, Moira Owen, Welsh delegate, suggested a windfall tax on those firms and individuals who made massive profits during the pandemic.

Levelling up pensioner poverty?

Several delegates noted the lack of evidence to support the hype around the government’s levelling up agenda, especially when it came to pensioner poverty.

Valerie Graham, representing the East Midlands, said that: “All pensioner poverty is abhorrent, but, as a union with 1 million women members, UNISON cannot ignore the fact that one in five UK women pensioners are now living in poverty.”

Criticising the government’s suspension of the triple lock for a year she stressed how vital it was that it be reactivated in 2023.

Continuing on pensions, West Midlands delegate, Maggie Morrissey called for urgent action to be taken to address the gender pension gap with most recent figures showing a 40.3% pension gap between men and women, worth around £7,500 each year.

Meanwhile, Maureen Wade from Birmingham branch highlighted the necessity of access to GP services. She cited a survey carried out by her branch highlighting the fact that many older people had to wait weeks for an appointment and that most of them were not face-to-face but either virtual or by phone. She warned of a drift towards “an anytime, anywhere, any place Martini treatment on a smartphone”.

On ageism during COVID, Gary Williams from Enfield branch expressed anger at the WhatsApp messages exchanged by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummins. Gary said: “Simply put, he was callous in his desire to abandon those over 80 to the perils of COVID.”

Gary stressed that any future inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID crisis must be open, independent and empowered to demand all necessary witnesses and records.

Despite the virtual setting, delegates held a successful conference but UNISON is looking forward to next year when the union hopes that conference will once again be able to meet in person.