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Unite Legal Services: Weekly coronavirus COVID-19 latest news round-up – 1 March 2021

red rectangle on cream background with black text  CORONAVIRUS COVID-19

At Unite Legal Services, we’ve collated the latest news and information regarding employment matters and workers’ rights in relation to coronavirus COVID-19 developments.

23 February 2021

Government’s ‘risky’ schools reopening gamble risks COVID spike

Unite the union has warned that the government’s decision to fully re-open schools in England on 8 March risks increasing COVID-19 rates and threatens the health of children, all school workers and their families.

Unite officer with national responsibility for schools, Caren Evans, said: “The government and the prime minister are once again guilty of gambling with the health of the nation.

“The scientific advice clearly advised a phased return to schools but the prime minister apparently knows better. Once again, the UK is guilty of failing to learn from the good practice of other nations including Scotland and Wales which are undertaking a phased return.

“Our members want to see all children back in school but this needs to be in a safe and ordered manner.

“Schools have been open throughout the pandemic and support staff have continued to play a key role in ensuring that children are safe, cared for and receiving the appropriate education and support. They are now faced with the additional stress of the uncertainty of not knowing how schools will safely operate when all pupils return.”

24 February 2021

Big brother fears as Go North West embarks on CCTV frenzy as bus strikes loom

Unite has warned that Manchester bus operator Go North West appears to be more intent on monitoring every movement of their workers than resolving the all-out bus strike, which began on Sunday 28 February.

More than 400 bus drivers employed by Go North West, which is part of the Go Ahead group, returned an 82 per cent yes vote in favour of strike action against the company’s decision to fire and rehire them on vastly inferior pay and conditions.

As a result of the company failing to enter into negotiations, Unite announced an all-out continuous bus strike from Sunday 28 February, which caused considerable disruption throughout Greater Manchester and beyond.

Unite has subsequently learned that in response to the announcement the company is installing 80 new CCTV cameras at its Queens Road depot, even though it already has a considerable monitoring operation in place. It is understood that Go North West is investing £46,000 in the cameras despite claiming the depot is loss making and will close if drivers don’t accept the new inferior contracts.

Unite fears that the new cameras will be used by Go North West to excessively monitor and discipline drivers for minor misdemeanours, such as breaching socially distancing rules.

If Go North West’s fire and rehire proposals are implemented, it will result in:

  • A 10 per cent cut in bus drivers
  • Workers, who earn an average of £24,000 per annum, forced to work longer for no additional pay, resulting in them being £2,500 a year worse off
  • Tearing up the existing sick pay policy, which will force workers to work when they are sick or should be self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Private Leamington mega lab will damage local NHS services

Unite has added its voice to warnings that the government’s plans to create a mega laboratory in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, will damage local NHS services.

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, has announced the creation of two additional mega laboratories, which will be run by private organisations for profit and will undertake NHS diagnostic testing. One of the mega labs will be located in Leamington Spa.

The mega labs are part of the government’s test and trace COVID contract and the responsibility for their roll out has been allocated to Dido Harding. The Leamington mega lab is currently in the process of recruiting workers.

The terms and conditions being offered to workers are vastly inferior to those offered in the NHS and Unite also has major misgivings about professional guidance, standards, quality and patient safety.

Unite has accused the government of using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for pushing through the mega lab and that its actions are a stab in the back to NHS biomedical scientists who are working round the clock to provide lab samples, including for COVID-19.

Unite calls for NHS Scotland workers to be vaccinated

Unite Scotland called for all NHS workers to be vaccinated in the fight against COVID-19.

It has been brought to the attention of Unite that across NHS Scotland there is an inconsistent approach to the way staff are being prioritised, depending on the health board they work for.

In NHS Tayside, some staff are not being vaccinated as they are not considered to be ‘front-facing’. However, the same workers are still working in COVID areas within hospitals and dealing with other ‘front-facing’ staff who are in contact with COVID patients. The staff members also travel through COVID areas to get to and from their areas of work. This is in sharp contrast with areas like NHS Ayrshire and Arran who are providing vaccinations for all of their workers.

Unite is now calling on health boards to prioritise all NHS staff for the vaccine on the basis that all NHS staff are ‘service critical’. Unite is repeating the argument it used when it successfully got all NHS 24 and Scottish Ambulance Service workers vaccinated on the basis that every worker is critical to the smooth operation of the NHS.

25 February 2021

Need for Sunak to extend £20-a-week Universal Credit boost indefinitely underpinned by Unite survey

The pressure on chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit (UC) indefinitely in next week’s budget has been reinforced by a new survey from Unite.

Unite said the survey of 579 of its Community members, who include the unemployed and those with disabilities, found 78 per cent did not find the UC’s payment enough to live on, even with the extra £20, as they struggled to pay food and utility bills.

The £20-a-week UC uplift was introduced at the onset of the pandemic last year, but is due to end on 31 March 2021 – and in Unite’s survey 52 per cent said the extra money helped ‘a lot’ to make ends meet.

A total of 85 per cent found the five-week wait for the UC payments to start as ‘difficult’. Just over half of those surveyed (54 per cent), took out an advance payment and 43 per cent said repaying the loan was also ‘difficult’.

Unite is one of a number of organisations lobbying the chancellor in Wednesday’s (3 March) budget to make the uplift permanent and not just to extend it for another six months, given that unemployment could rise further as lockdown restrictions are eased and the furlough payments taper off.

26 February 2021

Sainsbury’s ‘pathetic’ pay rise ‘put to shame’ by Morrisons’ £10 an hour pledge

Sainsbury’s 2021 pay offer to staff – a 20p increase to £9.50 an hour – has been ‘put to shame’ by Morrisons’ pledge to pay workers £10 an hour from April.

Unite branded the profitable company’s offer to staff – who have risked their health to keep the nation fed during the pandemic – ‘pathetic’.

Unite, which represents around 9,000 Sainsbury’s workers, said the company’s ‘PR friendly plan’ to pay small bonuses will cause reductions and interruptions to the in-work benefits that many of its low paid staff rely on.

Instead of a bonus system, Unite called on Sainsbury’s to match Morrisons’ more generous offer and ‘give staff the proper pay rise they deserve’.

Over the last three and a half years, Sainsbury’s workers have only had a 3.3 per cent pay increase on base rates, while all other payments, such as shift and public holiday premiums, have been frozen.

Unions dismayed by delays on pay rise decision for council and school workers

The three main local government unions have called on employers to speed up the pay offer process so council and school staff don’t have to wait months for the wage rise due in the spring.  

UNISON, GMB and Unite - which between them represent 1.4 million council and school employees - have called for a substantial increase to redress a decade of cuts and recognise ​the role played by staff in the pandemic.

But they have been told a 2021/22 rise will not be considered until after the local elections on 6 May, despite staff being due a wage increase from 1 April.  

In a joint letter to local government employers, the unions have demanded an explanation for the delay, pointing out that all councils already know their budgets for the financial year ahead.

The three unions have also called for discussions to start on the pay offer as soon as possible.  

Manchester mayor urged to intervene to protect community health as Go North West bus strike begins

Unite has written to the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, urging him to intervene, after becoming increasingly alarmed at Go Northern West’s plans to continue running services during strike action.

The bus drivers began continuous all-out strike action on Sunday 28 February in a dispute over the company’s plans to fire and rehire its workforce. This would amount to a £2,500 cut for workers and slashed conditions, including sick pay.

Rather than seek a negotiated settlement to avoid the strike, Unite has learned that Go North West is instead seeking to run an alternative service.

Unite understands that Go North West is subcontracting its routes to other smaller bus companies, including Selwyn’s and Belle Vue coaches.

It is also understood that as part of the ‘alternative bus service’, drivers will be brought in from beyond the Greater Manchester area, including from Wales.

Unite urged the mayor to intervene as the buses used do not have the COVID-19 shields that protect the drivers from potential COVID exposure from passengers.

Get more support

For more information on how we are fighting to protect the health and safety, and economic stability of our members during the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis, please visit the Unite the Union advice hub.

If you are in need of further advice on an employment law query during the crisis, you can visit the Unite Legal Services coronavirus COVID-19 page, or call Unite’s dedicated coronavirus COVID-19 Legal Advice Line on 0333 202 6557.

COVID-19 personal injury claims

Unite has set up a specialist legal team to advise and represent members who have suffered injury as a result of COVID-19

If you have suffered injury from developing COVID-19, or have tragically lost a family member to the condition, then please call Unite’s COVID-19 PI team on 020 8799 4023.