Waltham Forest Trades Council campaign in May 2020 to lobby government to provide PPE for essential workers.

Workers’ lives lost to COVID remembered

Calls grow for independent public enquiry into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.
29 April 2021 , Katie Coyne

The image above is from a Waltham Forest Trades Council campaign last year to lobby government to provide PPE for essential workers. At that point (May 2020), at least 200 health and social care workers had died from COVID-19. According to the BMJ, between March and December 2020 more than 850 UK healthcare workers died of COVID, and at least 3,000 have died in the US.

Deaths at work, especially due to COVID-19, were commemorated in a series of events around the UK yesterday.

Across Yorkshire, town halls lit up in purple to mark International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD), and a minute’s silence was held at midday remembering lives lost.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for Yorkshire MPs to support a public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “Many of our loved ones lost their life after catching COVID-19 in their workplaces.

“From working in the factories that produced PPE for the NHS to the nurses and doctors who didn't have enough PPE at the start of the pandemic, they kept the country going and paid the ultimate price.

“An independent, judge-led statutory public inquiry is vital to making sure we learn lessons and save lives during the pandemic and for any future waves.

“The stories of our loved ones hold the answers to preventing more grief for other families.”

In Wales, the TUC released new YouGov research that found just one in four employers was following Welsh Government COVID regulations.

Less than half (47%) of workers said their employer had undertaken a COVID workplace risk assessment, a requirement under the Welsh Government’s COVID regulations.

Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj said there can be “no more excuses” from employers. She added: "We’ll forever be in the debt of the workers who died during this pandemic – nurses, carers, bus drivers and so many more.”

In east London, Waltham Forest Trades Council held an online event and said that many work COVID-related deaths were not being counted due to problems with reporting.

Len Hockey from the Unite union at Barts Health NHS Trust, attending, said: "Hand-clapping showed much-needed support – but it doesn’t pay the bills.

“NHS support workers like porters, cleaners, kitchen staff and all privatized health workers want a 15% pay increase now!"

“They lost their lives looking after our loved ones and keeping our country running in the hardest of times.

“We owe it to them to ensure that more is done to tackle employers that are still playing fast and loose with workers’ safety.”

In Scotland, Unison joined the Scottish TUC, Scottish Hazards and other unions at 11am to mark IWMD and laid a wreath at the workers’ memorial in Glasgow Green, and held a minute’s silence.

Mike Kirby, Unison Scottish secretary, said: “This year has shone a spotlight on the poor state of the social care sector and on how health service staff have been pushed to burnout.

“Many staff across a broad range of essential services who worked to keep us safe and maintain some quality of life have been left desperate, frightened and traumatised as a result.”

Professor Andrew Watterson at Stirling University spoke at the online event hosted by the STUC/Scottish Hazards for IWMD. Watterson argued that the pandemic “starkly exposed the UK failures on workplace health and safety” and that greater investment was needed in an “independent HSE and in local authorities” as the key H&S regulators.

He argued for an “independent, properly resourced and staffed occupational health and safety body” for Scotland – as currently H&S is not a devolved issue.

Watterson said: “Unlike the UK, the Scottish Government should adopt, in a devolved or independent state, all International Labour Organization conventions on occupational health and effective precautionary principles…

“Scottish worker health and safety should therefore be based on effective and coherent principles, policies and practices geared to prevention. This is currently often missing or marginalised in a deregulatory climate that highlights ‘flexibility, proportionate and common-sense action’ which is a code for inaction.

“Scottish worker health and safety should never again be neglected in pandemic planning by public health bodies lacking expertise and autonomy and unable to effectively safeguard all workers at risk”.

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