Dave Prentis writes to Boris Johnson urging immediate action on all Public Health England’s recommendations
The government must act immediately to protect Black workers from Covid-19 by closing gaps that create health inequalities and poverty and ensuring workplaces are safe, says UNISON today (Tuesday).
The union has written to the Prime Minister urging him to implement all Public Health England’s (PHE) recommendations such as developing comprehensive risk assessments for Black staff to reduce their chance of coronavirus exposure and infection.
It follows the publication last week of a PHE report which concluded that the risk of dying is higher among BAME people than in white ethnic groups – a finding that UNISON says needs urgent answers.
The letter from general secretary Dave Prentis calls on the Prime Minister to take action including closing ethnicity and disability pay gaps, bringing into force laws to ask public authorities to consider how their policies increase or decrease inequality, and to set up a race advisory board to inform government policy-making.
In the letter, Dave Prentis says: “Coronavirus is inextricably linked to inequality. Urgent action is needed to close the gaps in health inequalities and poverty that accelerate susceptibility to coronavirus and life expectancy.
“Poverty is a political choice. Ending deprivation and rising inequality must be a government priority as the UK deals with the economic, health and social challenges of the pandemic.
“Black workers and communities deserve to have the PHE report acted upon and their lives valued and protected as all others.”
Class and race are the biggest factors in determining those that have died or been taken ill by Covid-19, Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union, said today (Tuesday 2 June).
Unite called for a raft of policies to tackle the ‘systemic failures’ that has led to the disproportionate death toll amongst the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and also the poorest groups in society.
The union was commenting on Public Health England’s report Disparities in the risk and outcomes of Covid-19 which highlighted those groups that had been hardest hit in terms of mortality due to coronavirus.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “This report shines a searing light that reveals the pandemic in the UK is intrinsically linked disproportionately to class and race.
“These wide disparities are detailed in this data and point to age, race and income and accompanying health inequalities as key determinants as to whom has been the worst affected by Covid-19.
“This has been amplified among those in undervalued occupations and jobs where zero hours’ contracts and precarious employment are the norm.
“Working hard to provide for your families is no defence against Covid-19 for these groups – these systemic failures need to be tackled urgently and that work should start now.
“No one policy size fits all, but such an agenda should include ethnically sensitive risk assessments and income guarantees for workers who through ‘test, track and trace’ would otherwise be reliant on statutory sick pay (SSP), while in isolation.
“The Real Living Wage should be the basic minimum for those in ‘at risk’ occupations as an interim measure, with a commitment to sectoral bargaining for care workers and the guarantee of the necessary funding.
“All these measures are achievable with government support. If austerity is over, as ministers claim, the best defence against the inequalities which the report exposes is to narrow the income gap and invest in public services with priority to social care.
“The pandemic has shown that the crisis in social care can no long be pushed into the political long grass. The lack of testing for residents and staff, and also the shortage of PPE, in care homes has wreaked a terrible toll on the elderly who have died in their thousands due to Covid-19.
“Social care can no longer be regarded as the poor relation when it comes to funding from the budgets of central and local government – a ministerial blueprint for social care should be a top priority as we emerge from the lockdown.
“Poverty is the parent of disease and Covid-19 has been a willing accomplice in this respect. Once this pandemic has passed, we need to look as a country anew to how we can recalibrate economic and social policies to create a fairer society.
“All these issues must be investigated in depth when the post-pandemic public inquiry takes place, which will be needed in the interests of accountability, openness and transparency.”
The PHE report said that those parts of UK society most affected included the elderly; Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) populations generally and those BAME NHS staff on the frontline in particular; those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and dementia; those living in care homes; and those from deprived comm
Jonathan Reynolds MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, responding to the publication of data from the Trussell Trust on food bank usage, said:
“These figures are a worrying sign that as the Covid-19 crisis progresses, families are still falling through the gaps in the safety net, especially as the largest increase was in parcels for children. The government risks exacerbating already unacceptable levels of child poverty in the UK.
“While existing changes to Universal Credit are welcome, the government must take further, urgent action to make sure that no-one goes hungry during the crisis.”
Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP Chancellor of the Exchequer HM Treasury 1 Horse Guards Road London SW1A 2HQ
Wednesday 1 April 2020
We, the undersigned leaders of civil society organisations, trade unions and community groups, academics, and policy experts call on you to take urgent and immediate action to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic deepening the debt trap faced by millions of low income households, and pushing millions more into problem debt.
The UK already faced a profound and growing crisis of poverty, destitution and problem indebtedness prior to Covid-19. Over 14 million British citizens, nearly 20% of our entire population, were already in poverty: struggling to afford even basic living essentials like food, water, electricity and rent. Growing numbers have been forced to borrow from high-cost lenders just to put food on the table, and faced spiralling indebtedness as a result. Personal debt was at its highest ever level just prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, with over 9 million people in problem debt.
We strongly commend the action you have taken within the last week to protect incomes and prevent the pandemic leading to employers laying off workers. We particularly applaud the moves to guarantee wages through the job retention scheme and to uplift Universal Credit and Local Housing Allowance.
However, many thousands of layoffs have already happened despite the measures announced, with many more expected in the coming weeks. Even with the actions you have announced so far, our social safety net will be severely inadequate to support those who lose their work and incomes because of this crisis, as well as those already out of work or unable to work for health or other reasons, all of whom now face increased living costs because of Covid-19.
Statutory Sick Pay is at an unliveable rate of £12.50 per day. A decade of real cuts means that other unemployment and social security benefits are similarly not enough to live on, worth less today in real terms than they were in the 1990s. Across the board, from Universal Credit to Carers’ Allowance, our social security provisions are insufficient to meet basic living costs, pushing those who rely on them into poverty, or debt, or both.
This crisis highlights the wholesale inadequacy of our social safety net and its inability to provide for the welfare of citizens and the nation as a whole at a time of national crisis. It is incumbent on the government to urgently move to provide a liveable income guarantee for all, including the homeless and people with no previous recourse to public funds, removing all punitive sanctions and payment delays. Self-isolation from Covid-19 simply cannot be a privilege only some can afford.
However, even with further action, these delays and gaps in the Government’s support package mean millions are already facing a dramatic drop in their incomes. Given the existing debt overhang, a more comprehensive household debt write-off will be needed in the post-Covid
period, to give families and the economy a fresh start. In the meantime, to prevent the further build-up of unfair and unsustainable household debt, we call on the government to:
1. Freeze repayments on all unsecured debt (including loans, credit cards, and rent-
to-own finance), with no accrual of interest during the repayment holiday
Those facing redundancy, loss of wages or other payment difficulties because of Covid-19 must be entitled to an immediate freeze on unsecured debt payments, similar to the mortgage holiday extended to homeowners, with no interest accumulated during the repayment holiday and no impairment of credit records.
2. Freeze utility, rent and council tax payments, with no build-up of arrears
More help must also be made available to impacted households in respect of council tax, rent and utility bills for those who need it, to ensure there is no build-up of arrears on these accounts. Central government should:
• Fund local authorities to provide 100% Council Tax Support to impacted households;
• Require landlords accessing mortgage holidays to pass that holiday onto tenants;
• Fund local authorities to make additional discretionary housing payments where rents are still required and cannot be paid;
• Provide help with gas and electricity costs by, for example, by broadening the scope and assistance provided through the Warm Home Discount Scheme.
3. Write-off council tax and social security debts
We welcome your move in the Budget to ease the burden on households of unfair council tax debt. In the face of Covid-19, it is essential to go further and provide breathing space to households under pressure by writing off the council tax debt and debt for overpayments of child benefit, working tax credit and Universal Credit: debts which, in a vast majority of cases, households have not intended to incur and which thousands are struggling to repay. Again, there should be full reimbursement to local councils by the government for resulting revenue losses.
4. Suspend all debt collection and enforcement activity with immediate effect
Broadening the Government’s pledge to protect renters by suspending all evictions, we call on the Government to suspend all collection activity on household debts and all enforcement activity by bailiffs, enforcement agents, and others.
Without this package of measures, the economic recovery from Covid-19 will be severely suppressed and millions more households will be pushed into the poverty, destitution and indignity of the growing household debt trap.