People In Non-Essential Jobs Forced To Go Into Work During Lockdown

Workers are “terrified” after the government insisted construction and manufacturing can continue despite soaring infections.

Construction and manufacturing workers are “terrified” of going into work and have criticised the government for its “lockdown for the middle classes” amid soaring coronavirus infection and death rates in England.

On Wednesday, the government confirmed a further 1,564 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 – the highest number of UK deaths reported on a single day since the outbreak began.

And although the public have been urged to “stay at home and reduce all social contact that is not absolutely necessary”, people working in non-essential construction and manufacturing are still being encouraged to continue as usual.

During the first lockdown, construction and manufacturing were allowed to operate but many sites were closed so that employers and staff could follow the government’s “stay at home” message.

The current guidance states: “You can only leave home for work purposes where it is unreasonable for you to do your job from home, including but not limited to people who work within critical national infrastructure, construction or manufacturing that require in-person attendance.”

One construction office worker told HuffPost UK she was “terrified” of becoming sick and bringing the virus back to her family. Furious that builders’ merchants such as the one she works at are still open and welcoming customers, she feels she has no choice but to go into work. “There are not many jobs around here and I’m in my late 50s,” she said.

“I want to stay home – but they won’t let me.”

Workers are "terrified" after the government insisted construction and manufacturing can continue despite the soaring infection and death rates.
Workers are "terrified" after the government insisted construction and manufacturing can continue despite the soaring infection and death rates.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the only woman in the office, she is uncomfortable demanding her colleagues or customers – who are usually young men – practice Covid-19 precautions and social distancing. “I don’t feel safe in my working environment,” she said.

“My colleagues rarely wear masks and our customers have a blasé attitude to mask-wearing. It worries me as they travel in from different parts of the country. Also for obvious reasons, handwashing doesn’t factor highly on a building site.”

She and her colleagues were furloughed during the first lockdown last year. “I don’t understand why most of the construction industry was shut down in the perfect building weather of last spring, but in the cold, wet and short days of January it’s now been deemed essential.”

She added: “This lockdown is for the middle classes. I work next to a major trunk road and the traffic has been pretty heavy this time. It doesn’t feel like the first lockdown.

“Most manual, physical and lower-paid jobs cannot be done from home. We have to work – we can’t afford not to. But why? A huge amount of people working in construction don’t need to be.” For this reason, she believes the country should return to a “full lockdown” where “only food providers and producers, doctors and hospitals should be open”.

On Tuesday, chancellor Rishi Sunak reiterated his insistence that housing, construction and manufacturing should keep working while recently-appointed business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was “vital” that construction continued.

In an open letter, he said: “It is vital that construction continues through these unsettling times and I want to reassure you that the government values the crucial contribution your sector is making.

“I would like to make it clear that where it is essential to travel or to stay in accommodation, whether to get to your work or for the purposes of carrying out your work, those in the industry are able to do so.”

One worker in the south-west pointed out that the guidance for people working in construction might not be so effective for those working indoors, where coronavirus spreads more easily through the air. This concern has previously been raised by a scientific adviser to the government, who said he had been “surprised” by the rates of transmission in the construction sector.

“I am concerned that because the government has encouraged construction to continue, it will put pressure on admin staff to support construction projects,” the worker told HuffPost UK.

“Contracts managers are going to sites across London and all around the country and then travelling back to the office. There have been so many cases of Covid among our subcontractors and it is only a matter of time before it gets back to us.”

They added they were “not keen” on being furloughed again but “if being furloughed is the only way I can stay safe” then they would accept it. “I love my job and want to work. But to me, people’s lives are more important than non-essential construction projects.

“It’s perfectly possible for me to provide admin support from home, lots of companies do it. I do feel more of an effort should be made to enable people to work from home. This is not a real lockdown.”

In Birmingham, where people are urged to stay at home, one manufacturing worker worried he had become infected by some of his 40 factory colleagues.
In Birmingham, where people are urged to stay at home, one manufacturing worker worried he had become infected by some of his 40 factory colleagues.
Mike Kemp via Getty Images

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed just 14% of workers were on furloughed leave, compared to a peak of 31% in mid-April.

Another person who wished to remain anonymous said they felt they had no choice but to go into work after being furloughed from April until August of last year. ” I need the money and I need a job in these uncertain times,” they said.

As a document controller, they are not considered a key worker but cannot work from home. In order to get to their workplace in the north-west of England, they must travel on the train every day. “Twenty people share one tiny bathroom and wearing a mask isn’t even enforced. Two people tested positive here last week,” they added.

“The government needs to look into a way where everyone stays at home even for a few weeks. I feel like we are expendable and nothing is going to be done.”

There was a real sense of hopelessness for every worker HuffPost UK spoke to, where each felt they were forced into a situation where they would inevitably become infected and even infect their loved ones, but that there was nothing to be done.

F, 29, from Birmingham was “finding it hard to take in deep breaths” when he spoke to HuffPost via text. He wasn’t sure whether he was sick from Covid-19 but regardless he felt he needed to turn up to his manufacturing job, where he works alongside 40 other people.

In his factory, three people had tested positive that week. “Our supervisor was walking across all the floors of the factories and has now been sent home with Covid.”

He said the government’s assertion that manufacturing should stay open during lockdown made him feel “expendable”. “I was furloughed last year but now it’s like our lives don’t matter. We’ve been forgotten about.”

Even those who believed their bosses were working to make their environment Covid-secure said they would have preferred to stay safe at home.

Jo C, 47, from Leicestershire, works in manufacturing and was furloughed during the first lockdown until early June. “My work has tried to follow all the rules to make the place Covid safe,” she said. “I work in a section with about 10 people, where we’ve been told we must wear a face-covering whenever we leave our stations.”

“I was furloughed last year but now it’s like our lives don’t matter. We’ve been forgotten about.”

Despite this, she worries constantly that she’ll put the safety of her asthmatic partner and 80-year-old mother at risk. “I dread coming into work each day. Every single day that I go to work, I am scared that I will take Covid into my home and pass it onto them.”

The impact of this daily terror and constant stress had clearly taken its toll and Jo admitted she was “struggling”. “My mental health is plummeting. I cry or get angry at the least little thing. I find I can’t cope in certain situations that once I would have thought nothing of.

“I have become a different person to what I used to be. I actively try not to speak or go near anyone at work. All I can think about is about how I cannot wait to get inside of my home and close the door on the world.”

She said she felt “utterly let down” by the government. “If Boris hadn’t furloughed people in construction and manufacturing in the first lockdown, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated and angry as I do right now. I feel like he cared about us in the first lockdown but now he is putting money before the lives of construction and manufacturing workers. He no longer gives a damn about people like me.

“It’s very unfair for them to tell us to go into work if you can’t work from home. It was drilled into us last March that if they deemed your work to be unessential, you must stay home. Now they are telling us that Covid is the worst that it’s ever been, but they expect us to go into work to do our unessential jobs.

“When Boris did his last announcement that Monday night about the third lockdown and told us all, ‘You must stay home,’ I actually screamed at the TV: ‘I want to! But you won’t let me!’ and I actually burst into tears.

“I want to stay home – but they won’t let me.”


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