'It’s Just Madness’: The Workers Being Forced To Carry On As Normal Amid Coronavirus

From court staff to construction workers, beauty therapists to DIY shop workers, many have little choice but to work.

The message from government could not have been clearer on the steps we are all expected to take to fight the coronavirus pandemic – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.

Yet some workers have told HuffPost UK of the fear and anger they are experiencing at being forced to go outside and into workplaces where they are in close daily contact with people despite the advice – and despite the fact their work could wait.

It has in part been blamed on confusing messaging from government around which businesses are allowed to stay open, alongside other public sector services such as the courts service.

But the employers themselves also stand accused of failure in their duty of care to workers. We have anonymised some of those featured in this article to protect their identities.

A packed carriage full of passengers travelling on the Victoria line of the London Underground Tube network on Friday
A packed carriage full of passengers travelling on the Victoria line of the London Underground Tube network on Friday
Yui Mok - PA Images via Getty Images

Criminal Barrister

Criminal barrister Rachel Law told us there was anxiety among court staff who are still being asked to enter the bustling environment every day so trials and hearings can continue.

Although the Lord Chief Justice today announced a temporary pause on new jury trials in crown courts, ongoing hearings are continuing with advice in place about social distancing.

The criminal barrister said: “Today I had a plea hearing so I went down to Woolwich Crown Court and met my client for about 15 minutes. I had to go down to the cells where there’s no hand gel and sit in a room four foot by four foot with three other people.

“My client is in prison and we know coronavirus is present in prisons, spreading like wildfire.

“A lot of people attend court hearings and the courts are absolutely filthy.

Law added: “We are really worried that we are being made to go to court for things that are just not urgent. Because we are all designated key workers, which just seems ludicrous to me.

“A lot of what we do is difficult to do from home but a lot of stuff could just wait or be sorted out over the telephone. It’s just madness that we’re being dragged to court. A lot of what we can do can wait.”

The government has said that it is essential courts and tribunals continue to administer justice but that it is adjusting practices to minimise risk to judiciary staff.

Aerospace Worker

The wife of a machinist for GKN Aerospace in Bristol said the company had sent home workers in the most high-risk groups but for everyone else it was “business as usual”.

She told HuffPost UK: “They’ve been told nothing. The surfaces of these machines they use and things like keyboards that people are touching with their hands, they haven’t cleaned them.

“My husband said this morning that he raised it with a manager and was told they were finding it hard to get hold of wipes.

“There are no social distancing measures. The only thing he has seen is a few more hand gels.”

A spokesperson for GKN Aerospace told HuffPost UK in a statement: “These are unprecedented times and our number one focus is to protect our people.

“Our response to the current situation follows the national guidance in the countries in which we operate.

“This includes social distancing for our employees and increased cleaning cycles at our facilities, so we can continue to supply to our world-leading customers throughout and beyond this extraordinary period.”

DIY Store Worker

The partner of someone who works for a well known home improvement store high street chain said she was angry at the way he had been treated.

“My partner has been at home with symptoms of coronavirus. I’m really pissed off with the way he’s been treated. Lots of places are closing down but they’ve basically said unless you’ve been tested and confirmed as having coronavirus, they’re not really bothered.

“But if they’re not testing NHS staff, why are they going to test someone who works in a DIY store?”

Beauty Worker

While pubs, cafes and restaurants have been forced to close by the government, there is ambiguity over some other retail sectors.

The list of businesses that have been forced to close includes spas, wellness centres and massage parlours. But other sectors such as hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons, which all entail close contact with customers in breach of the two-metre social distancing rules, all appear to be allowed to stay open.

One beauty worker, who does botox and filler injections and tattooing of eyebrows, told HuffPost UK: “It’s not an industry you can do two metres apart.

“They’re just carrying on as normal and it’s horrifying. It’s like they’re waiting for the government to tell them what to do and just trying to get as much money in as they can.

“They’re asking people to wait two metres apart but then [that person] comes to you and then the next one comes to you. They’re putting masks on but they’re only paper masks and it’s dangerous, they’re not taking it seriously.”

Painter and decorator

A tweet from Labour MP Neil Coyle showing rush hour crowds on the London Underground prompted over 200 replies, many from people saying they have been given no choice but to leave their homes and head to work.

The partner of a London-based painter and decorator who wished to remain anonymous, told HuffPost UK: “If there’s just one sick person there... they’re going to be running around for two weeks not knowing they’re ill.

“You can see the people are spacing on the platform and being really sensible but their hearts must sink when the tube comes in and the doors open like this.”

There are currently four people on the site he is working on, while all the rest of the company is working from home.

Her partner has been told that if he doesn’t turn up at work – which requires a trip across London on the Tube as he has never ridden a bike in the capital and doesn’t feel confident doing so – he will not be paid.

She added: “He just feels like shit. Every evening when he comes home he’s literally stripping outside the front door and straight into the bath and clothes straight into the washing machine.

“It just feels so over the top for a painter.”

The National Picture

A further 54 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in the UK, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths in the country to 335.

NHS England said 46 more people have died after testing positive for the illness, meaning the death toll in England now stands at 303.

Four more people were confirmed to have died as of Monday after testing positive for Covid-19 in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has said, taking the death toll to 14.

A further four patients in Wales who tested positive for coronavirus were also confirmed to have died on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 16.

There have been two coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Ireland.

Underlining the rapid spread of the disease, the UK’s coronavirus death toll went beyond 200 only on Saturday.

Labour MP Coyle told HuffPost UK: “Some employers are shamefully not following the government advice and are risking serious damage to their staff, to our NHS which faces a huge crisis and of course to their reputations.

“If your employees are not key workers you should not be insisting they come in to work. I am seeking penalties for rogue employers who are ignoring the pandemic and taking huge risks with staff and customers’ health.”

But Andrew Goodacre, CEO at the British Independent Retailers’ Association (Bira), says the fault lies with the government.

“This is a very concerning and confusing time for many of our members,” he said, “and we would urge the government to set out more clear guidelines over which businesses should be allowed to stay open.

“We have had many calls from members concerned about whether their insurance will pay out if they opt to close and, once again, I would urge the government to make clear their intentions to underwrite insurance policies so small independent retailers can make informed and confident choices.

“What the government has done so far is welcomed by Bira but we now need information about how the emergency funding can be accessed immediately.”