As Britain nurses a nationwide hangover following the revelry of the “Super Saturday” weekend, which saw many pub-starved drinkers propping up the bar as early as 6am, the spotlight is, once again, shone on how people in low-paid, manual jobs face a greater risk of contracting the virus.
Escalating cases of localised spikes in COVID-19 transmission cement concerns that this deadly virus in far from over. Couple this with the images of crowded pubs crammed with punters, exposes real concern that those working in such environments are at risk of contracting the virus.
Health experts have warned that the government’s “rush” to relax lockdown restrictions, including the reopening of pubs and restaurants, threatens public health and risks a second wave of coronavirus.
As Debbie Wood, executive director for membership and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said:
“The government’s rush to lift lockdown for some businesses could risk a public health storm. We are not out of the woods in fully controlling the virus…. Lifting lockdown so quickly for some businesses is a recipe for a potential second spike.”
The reopening of the country’s much-loved pub and restaurant scene, as well as non-essential businesses like hairdressers and clothes shops, has come at a time when localised COVID-19 spikes are intensifying. And what do the cities and towns beleaguered by coronavirus flare-ups, such as Leicester, Oldham, Barnsley, and Bradford, have in common? They are all among the top 20% most deprived areas in Britain.
Analysis by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that those working in low paid jobs like cleaners, chefs, and retail workers, are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB trade union, described the figures as “horrifying.”
“If you are low-paid and working through the COVID-19 crisis, you are more likely to die – that’s how stark these figures are. Ministers must pause any return to work until proper guidelines, advice and enforcement are in place to keep people safe,” he said.
The move to exempt Leicester from the easing of lockdown restrictions was due to the virus rate reaching 135 per 100,000 of the population. Reasons behind the spike are being pinned on the virus breaking out in individual workspaces and subsequently spreading in households.
Alarming examples of individual workplaces acting as a breeding ground for the virus have been picked up by the media. One such institution is a clothes factory in Leicester. A report by the campaign group Labour Behind the Label – which aims to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry – highlights allegations that workers were forced to work despite high levels of coronavirus infection rates.
“Factories in Leicester are no stranger to illegal working conditions, with numerous reports over the years showing low pay – as little as £3 – and blatant intimidation of vulnerable workers. Now however, emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infection and fatality as some factories have remained open for production during the lockdown, whilst others are now re-opening,” writes Labour Behind the Label.
A similar situation has been identified in Kirklees, a district of West Yorkshire. Kirklees is trenched in poverty, recognised as one of the most deprived areas in England in relation to income and employment rates.
In early July, a bed factory in the market town of Bately in the borough of Kirklees, was identified as the site of a second COVID-19 outbreak in the district. Eight people of a workforce of around 107, tested positive for the virus during the first week of July.
Just days earlier, an outbreak had occurred in a meat factory, also in the Kirklees vicinity.
Despite the pattern for the deadly virus to rear its head in traditionally unskilled workplaces like factories that typically employ low paid staff, the weekend of July 4 saw much of the country’s low-paid workforce driven back to work in the likes of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers.
The reopening of the hospitality and non-essential services sectors, has been fervently promoted by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who urged the people of Britain with a new government-driven slogan “eat out to help out” in a bid to boost the economy.
“This is a consumption-driven economy,” he told The Times, adding people should “relearn what it’s like to go out again.”
Like the factories acting as COVID-19 hotbeds, many of the businesses opening their doors once more in a bid to save the economy, are home to some of the lowest paid jobs in the UK.
Payscale identifies waiting on staff, bartenders, and shop assistants, workers that have been forced to bravely face hungry punters relishing to party after 12 weeks of lockdown, as among the lowest paid jobs in the UK.
As we have seen with the spikes in many deprived towns and cities, where the number of people employed in low-skilled, low-paid jobs are above the national average, coronavirus is far from over.
Super Saturday also marked the downgrading of the two-metre social distancing rules to one-metre, in a move to make the reopening of businesses like pubs, restaurants and hairdressers feasible.
Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, condemned the move, calling for “significant intervention” by both the government and employers to prevent the virus spreading.
Like many a pub-goer’s elation at being sat in their favourite bar again after a 12-week-plus hiatus, many waiting on staff, bar workers, chefs and others employed in pubs and restaurants, are pleased to be back at work.
Others feel unease that the reopening of pubs will run the risk of COVID-19 transmission levels rising again. As Bobby, a student in Newcastle who works in a gin bar, told The Tab:
“I very much think that if there is a second spike it will be caused by drunk people in bars not socially distancing, so we’re very much relying on the PPE to successfully look after us.”
Meanwhile Wetherspoons’ owner Tim Martin, the outspoken Brexiteer who appeared alongside Boris Johnson on the Leave campaign trail, attempted to appease concerns about the reopening of pubs, saying there has been “very little transmission of the virus in pubs.”
Martin’s remarks naturally created a backlash, with one challenger tweeting:
“The selfish profiteer (& utter prick) wants your cash in his pocket & doesn't care how many people he has to kill to get it!”
For an employer who pays his workers what’s been described as “poverty wages”, Martin’s unlikely to be bereft with anxiety about how resuming business as usual may affect coronavirus transmission rates.
For many employers in industries like hospitality and hairdressing and their employees, as the government’s furlough scheme is gradually tapered off, they have little choice to open their doors again and, by doing so, put those working for the lowest wages in Britain, at risk of being the harbourers of a fresh wave of infections.BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS