GMB union political officer, Neil Smith says, ''the government has lost the trust of the nation''
When it comes to running the country and giving leadership at a time of great importance to the people of the UK, things don’t get much worse than they are right now. We have a deadly pandemic among us and we have a no-deal Brexit around the corner. Many folk are asking: “Is there a cunning plan or is it the total incompetence of Boris Johnson and his ministers?” There is an indication that should be quite shocking to our members and people who live in our region. That is the recent polls which show lots of people still think this government are or have done a good job in handling the situation. That is absolutely Beyond belief!
Some believe the government didn’t know this was coming, despite the massive amount of evidence gathered as part of the 2016 Cygnus Report. This was an exercise to see if the country could cope with a pandemic. The exercise showed it couldn’t, failing in particular in levels of care services, vaccines and morgue facilities. Jeremy Hunt the Health Minister at the time was co-responsible for it.
So lack of preparedness can and should be held against the Tory elite.
How else did they prepare? Well in the last ten years they have slashed jobs in the HSE. In 2010 they cited the need to cut “red tape” and reduce “over regulation” by cutting 25% of their budget but demanding that these cuts should “not impact on health and safety figures”. Another beyond belief moment! The Tory arguments at the time needs to be looked at closely as they are so very important to what is happening.
They wanted to “ease or remove unnecessary burdens on employers, particularly SMEs”, arguing for “less but better regulations”. Their targets apparently were “rogue employers and regular offenders”. But if they were slashing the numbers of expert HSE inspectors who would be inspecting and compiling the evidence or gathering the data on these rogues?
Statistics also show that the number of improvement notices on companies increased compared to the falling number of prosecutions at the same time. Must be the incentives they were referring to to encourage entrepreneurship?
Instead they were removing disincentives from bosses to stick with the health and safety law and regulations, creating additional danger for workers and increasing the number of deaths at work. Light touch regulation was the new policy while people died across industries. They were replacing so called Red Tape with blood red bandages. We know it as de-regulation.
But then COVID-19 arrived. All of a sudden health, safety and welfare is flavour of the month. We were impressed as the GMB union, TUC and other union experts were being invited in to help the government floundering in its ignorance about hazards and risks and people were dying in droves. PPE became the best thing since sliced bread during a bakers strike and as rare as toilet rolls on the supermarket shelves. We were all in this together apparently.
However despite the Cygnus Report warning when the government was told it unprepared back in 2016, nothing had been done. PPE shortages were creating massive problems and major embarrassment to Matt Hancock and his mealy mouthed cronies. Front line staff were dying for want of the correct protective equipment. Employers were struggling with risk assessments and COSHH or RIDDOR regulations because health and safety had been shoved down their agenda and turned into a red tape burden.
Disturbingly the HSE were only then seen to be under resourced after the massive cuts, but also appeared to be forced into behaving like a toothless organisation simply repeating government guidelines that were changing faster than the weather. What had happened to this tough regulator, this champion of protection? It had been neutered financially and politically.
Our regulator responsible for policing the Health and Safety at Work Act and other safeguards were quiet. Why wasn’t the government telling them to regulate and enforce the law to protect people? Except they seem content with aligning with Govt guidance - when most employers wanted clarity and instruction on what to do. Meanwhile those rogue employers can undermine H&S regs by using confused guidance aided by government and HSE attitudes.
After a lockdown that was continuing in light of horrendous fatality figures and the economy struggling, with employers squealing about their profits vanishing overnight, everything had to change. Everyone was to get back to work ASAP, regardless of illness or asymptomatic concerns. The government overnight stopped talking to the unions and their priority was the economy not health.
There was no leadership, only confused messages enabling people to ignore or downplay the statutory safety regulations that are there to save lives.
And of course the blame game started, with teachers unions, BAME citizens, Care Homes and anyone else who was in their firing line were to blame.
Certain communities were returned to lockdown as the virus kicked off again with spikes appearing in places like Leicester and Wales. Interestingly the spikes were linked to garment and meat packing factories which were not unionised. Panorama and other television documentaries are highlighting the issues in care homes and hospitals as well as these other hot spots and the bad news continues. The government are saying now is not the time for an enquiry. We must demand there is a full independent enquiry, with teeth set up to expose the way this has been mishandled. We must also campaign strongly for a Royal Commission on the HSE, to restore to this country a regulator that is well-resourced and independent of government to keep working people and the public safe.
GMB union North West & Irish Region