Matt Hancock has said many things both before and during this pandemic that has stopped me in my tracks, but seeing his comments today did so for entirely different reasons.
During a session including both the Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Committees he spoke about how work culture here in the UK contributes to the spread of illnesses: “Why in Britain” he pondered “do we think its acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms or a runny nose, thus making your colleagues ill?”
I was staggered. I mean lets just ignore the fact that most of the cabinet have been spreading the virus around faster than the rumours regarding why Mark Francois has “mysteriously” vanished from public life, I’ve said this very thing myself. Admittedly in bad faith and temper when I’ve been lying in bed shivering and sick with fever after contracting something at work. But this is something that I, and certainly not any politician, should be blaming my fellow colleagues for. It’s always hard to tell what is genuinely a lack of self awareness or a cold blooded lack of empathy with Matt Hancock. I suggest it’s a combination of both. He demonstrates sentience on a level with the sourdough starter that you made at the beginning of lockdown and then forgot about after 3 weeks of fighting nanas in the supermarket for flour. But he didn’t stop there:
“We are peculiarly unusual and outliers in soldiering on and it being the culture that ‘as long as you get out of bed you should still get in to work’. That should change.”
Well thanks for that Comrade, but before we hand you your red and black Gorro Miliciano, lets look at why people do this shall we?
Firstly, it would be misleading to suggest the Tories are to blame for this. In fact it would be equally so to suggest capitalism as a whole is to blame. It has been this way for as long as the working classes have been exploited by the ruling ones, and we are not outliers in the slightest. It is the same the world over. But the health secretary does need to realise that he and this current Conservative government is what what upholds, reinforces and makes toxic work culture flourish here in the UK.
I work in the charity sector, and when I’m in the office I spend the majority of my time doing joint work with social workers. For the past previous two christmases I have spent all of my annual leave close to hospitalisation thanks to chest infections that have aggravated my asthma. Both of these started out as a common cold, picked up from my large poorly ventilated office where dozens upon dozens of social workers have dragged themselves in wheezing and sneezing like elderly pugs. It was almost so easy to be bitter about it. “Why the merry hell have they come in like that?” I usually cursed under my breath about my fellow workers. Unless you work with or are close to any social worker it is hard to comprehend the amount of pressure they are under, especially at the moment. Like teachers and the medical professions, they are under more strain than ever, with strict deadlines and an ever increasing list of expectations with an ever decreasing amount of time and resources to do it. Prior to covid, they were told they couldn’t do possibly their job from home, despite it being normalised and expected that they take their laptops with them when they leave the office to try and desperately finish notes and assessments while the kids are in bed. They get ill a lot, partly down to stress and partly due to the fact that the nature of their work requires them to be in the community for a great deal of the day. For me to blame them for coming in ill would be to entirely miss the bigger picture.
For myself, I have a lot firmer boundaries these days when it comes to coming in ill. I did it for too many years and my health is permanently damaged as a result. Not signing off sick too late and coming back before I’m fully recovered. If I’m ill, I’m staying off and my ears are entirely immune to the whine of any manager or HR tyrant who tries to say otherwise. But it’s easy for me to do that these days. I’m in a job that I get a reasonable amount of paid sick leave and actually my manager is quite easy going when it comes to these matters. This hasn’t always been the case for me and it certainly isn’t the case for millions of workers throughout the UK. For people on zero hours contracts, paid sick leave doesn’t exist. Same if you work for an agency or are in the hospitality business. I was sacked as a teenager from my waitressing job at a restaurant after a viral infection put me in hospital for a week and I couldn’t use my legs. Even when I was discharged I was using sticks to hold myself up, yet my boss couldn’t understand why this meant I couldn’t carry a tray up two flights of stairs. Self employed people too often can’t survive on what statutory sick pay offers and the conditions required to get it and have to take on work as it’s a choice between getting evicted and feeding your children.
For those who are disabled or chronically ill, needing time off again is a choice between dragging your broken body into work or facing a panic attack as you have to ring your manager again and you are dragged in a meeting with HR who give you a disciplinary and command you to stop having a complex and debilitating medical condition. The fact that giving people who are well documented to have disabilities and serious conditions a disciplinary for being ill is absurd as it is cruel.
Even for those in my sector where there is a bit of protection and leeway if you become unwell, many people do still drag themselves in simply because we are now so under staffed and resourced that if we don’t come in, our service users will be left stranded in dangerous situations or without the care that they waited too long for in the first place.
If Matt Hancock and his colleagues are serious about changing this culture, then its them that need to implement it instead of again implying that the British population’s tendency to destroy their health for their employer is some jolly. They have deliberately decimated workers rights over their last decade in power, and continue to do so which is what happens when you value your profit over your communities. They forced people who were not well enough to work back into employment under threat of destitution and stage attack after attack on welfare. Shortening the working week and implementing Universal Basic Income would also do not just for the health of the nation, but also the economy. The pandemic needs to make us rethink how we organise society entirely. It’s not just a case of us going back to normal. Because that was destroying us too.
And with that, today’s rant is paired with The Varukers- Die For Your Government.