Blog: Wilfully sowing the seeds of masked confusion

If only the Westminster government could show some of the responsibility it wants the rest of us to take on

Christina McAnea

We all want a return to our normal pre-COVID-19 lives, but only a government led by Boris Johnson could think they can just wish it, and it will happen.

They appear to have tired of governing the country out of this pandemic and would rather let the people do it themselves. But responsibility goes hand in hand with leadership. It is not an optional extra.

We are now back to incredibly confusing, constantly changing mixed messages – and it is left to the public to do what they think is right and our members to deal with the fallout.

So, mandatory masks for care home and hospital visitors, but not on crowded buses or trains.

We all know coronavirus isn’t going to stop outside our office doors in England next Monday – we are still in a global pandemic and the removal of restrictions such as mandatory face coverings is a serious concern against a backdrop of the rapid rise in cases.

With more people likely to be travelling and commuting to and from work on public transport it is ludicrous to remove this measure.

And talk of personal responsibility just shifts the burden onto already over-worked, tired and stressed care, NHS and other public service staff.

Yes the vaccine is weakening the link between deaths and hospital admissions, but it hasn’t completely broken it.

We are also concerned about the risk of long COVID, particularly in younger workers who may have only had one vaccine. And we’re also concerned about others who remain clinically vulnerable despite having two vaccines.

There is also more the government should be doing to support and promote vaccine uptake in groups which were most affected by COVID but are concerned about the vaccine, including our Black members.

The requirement to ensure a safe place of work remains and employers have a duty to comply with existing health and safety legislation to lower the risk of COVID exposures in public-facing jobs and outbreaks in a work environment.

That could be anything from ensuring effective ventilation is in place to supporting clinically vulnerable staff who may not have full protection from the vaccine to continue to work from home.

We would expect employers to consult unison safety representatives on what measures they are taking to ensure workplaces are safe and measures in place to protect members. UNISON will be producing updated advice for reps and members in England in the coming days.

Understandably, there will be a lot of anxiety for members who have been working from home and are being asked to return to their pre-pandemic place of work. For some it will be 18 months since they last set foot in their work building.

So we would expect employers to take a supportive approach and phase a return, being flexible on starting and finishing times and having rota systems to reduce the amount of people in the office at one time. And there should be longer-term discussions on hybrid or flexible working.

The government has set the tone for a big bang return to life as normal in England next Monday – the reality may prove, yet again, different from their rhetoric. If only they could exercise a degree of the responsibility they are abdicating onto the rest of the population.