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People should not have to choose between staying safe & putting food on the table – Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham Exclusive #COVID19UK

“Funding is falling woefully below that needed to keep people safe & defeat this dreadful disease. The need for adequate sick pay & a decent, fair system of support to help those isolating & to support local government in delivering this, could not be more urgent.”

Rokhsana Fiaz

Evidence mounts over the need for greater funding to support workers to self-isolate

By Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz OBE

This week, the pressure is intensifying on the government after mounting evidence on the failure to adequately support those needing to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, with Baroness Harding confirming at a meeting of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee that 20 percent of those testing positive are not following the isolation requirements.

Localised and robust test, trace, isolate and support systems are a crucial weapon in the fight against virus transmission and sit alongside the rollout of the vaccine in the battle to defeat COVID-19, protect our community and save lives. Yet, despite huge efforts by Councils to rapidly increase testing locally, and put in place the vast support systems to help our residents, this is being dangerously undermined because those at risk are so fearful of losing their jobs and livelihoods.

Councils are again finding themselves at the sharp end, as a TUC report out this week demonstrates. The findings show acute pressures on local government, due to funding shortfalls, and that more than two-thirds of people applying for support end up without any, due to government criteria. The research also shows that the funding given to councils to support self-isolation did not cover even half the demand of local authorities England, and that was only with the insufficient eligibility criteria. This latest evidence has shone further light on how funding is falling woefully below that needed to keep people safe and defeat this dreadful disease. The need for adequate sick pay and a decent and fair system of support to help those isolating, and to support local government in delivering this, could not be more urgent.

Our research in Newham brings the TUC’s findings into sharp focus. Working with the University of East London, we surveyed residents to understand their experience of the local COVID-19 test, trace, isolate and support system through this journey. What we found as being the overwhelming priority, across all survey respondents, is the security of knowing that they won’t lose their jobs and could access better financial support is what would help them most.

That our residents are taking unsafe decisions for reasons of finance and job security is a failing of the governments’ response to this virus. Amongst working age groups, the guarantee you would not lose your job was the biggest factor that would make it more likely residents would self-isolate, including 90% of those in the 19 to 30-age cohort. This is intolerable insecurity which many workers live within regular times, and which during COVID becomes so acutely desperate.

People are putting their lives at risk, and risking spreading the disease, because they face an impossible choice. Many know they will lose work or see reduced hours and their families will simply struggle to survive. The impact of COVID-19 continues to surface and exacerbate pre-existing issues of inequality and poverty, with residents choosing between physical health and their livelihoods. The approach of the government has been to entrench, rather than addresses these issues. Communities like those that I represent in Newham are acutely aware of how economic and health injustices are now proving to be a matter of life and death.

The impact of the pandemic saw Newham among those hardest hit by the virus last spring, due to combined factors of economic deprivation, overcrowded housing, health inequalities and structural racism that left Black and Asian people the most exposed to the virus. Newham is a vibrant borough, the most diverse in the country, with 73 per cent of our residents from Black, Asian or minority ethnic groups. However, there are rising challenges, increased by COVID, following decades of national government underfunding and lack of investment.

With an over-representation of people in insecure and unsafe work, and those in vital but lower paid caring professions, the ability to stay safe versus the pressures to continue to work to put food on the table has created serious risks for many people. On top of this, the financial impact of the pandemic on our local economy has seen unprecedented rises of those on furlough and those on universal credit, coming out the highest across London. We saw an incredible 231 per cent increase in the claimant count last year, until the end of December, compared to 167 per cent for London as a whole. Some 33,000 people were on furlough by the end of 2020, and for many, the prospect of a return to work after the current lock looks precarious.

Meanwhile, the government’s approach has been to promise much, but deliver far less. The financial cost of COVID to date has cost us an additional £75m, through spending to support people and income lost to the council. Yet the government has barely covered half of this amount, and the current failure to support our people who need to isolate is just more of the same. Whilst billions were found instantly at the start of the crisis, to guarantee loans from the banks, local authorities were forced to scramble for money on a piecemeal basis.

Today, people are also being forced to make impossible choices. This is not just affecting the lives of those affected by COVID, it undermines the efficacy of our strategy to defeat the virus. In Newham, we have been at the forefront in pushing for greater testing so that we can get the disease not only under control, but driven back. We now have nine rapid testing centres across the borough and we are working flat out to make it easy and possible for people to get tested. We are also offering unique support in the form of alternative safe accommodation for those who need to isolate, to address practical difficulties, such as overcrowded homes. We have hugely increased our staffing efforts to get the isolation payments processed so that those who need to are supported. Yet, as the TUC study shows, we are finding a large number of people turned down for support and deemed ineligible, and funding, yet again, falling short.

Unfortunately, this is not simply a result of the pandemic, it is the result of a deeply rooted problem. We are paying the price for the systematic erosion of employment rights and the rise of ever more insecure and low paid work, zero-hours contracts and subsequent exploitation which has been intensified over the past ten years. This erosion of rights has driven down wages, borne out by our research which revealed that in 2019 a staggering 27 per cent of those in work were earning less than the minimum wage. Indeed, Newham’s average wage is well below the London average, at £19,465, compared with £29,362 across the city.  

So, for us, fighting the COVID-19 goes hand in hand with the need for economic justice and for radically transformative policies, which shape our economic priorities and how we recover and respond to the pandemic. In Newham, we have forged our policy approach through Community Wealth Building, which, in essence, puts tackling poverty and inequality at the heart of everything we do. A sustainable and inclusive economic approach is at the root, and to develop decent quality jobs and training.

Our COVID-19 recovery strategy and action plan, Towards a Better Newham, has been shaped by this, and a key part is to actively defend and advance workers’ rights, including through the establishment of a Workers’ Rights Hub for the first time. Not only is this right and just, but evidence over many decades prove that strong employment rights – and trade unions – deliver better results for businesses and the economy as a whole. For us, through working with partners, including the trade unions and local businesses, we want to enshrine minimum requirements, such as the Living Wage, and to ensure that we go beyond that in creating secure and quality jobs, and demanding that anyone wishing to invest in the Borough ensures that local people benefit through rights, decent pay and training. Shortly after I was elected Mayor, I moved rapidly to bring in the London Living Wage for domiciliary care workers, as a first step.

And leaders should not shy away from pressing the bigger businesses to recognise trade unions and treat workers fairly when it comes to job protection, and job losses, as I have done with London City Airport, one of our biggest companies in Newham. We must not forget that Labour is in power in local government across the country, and we have a responsibility to show an alternative way forward that can be a cause for hope. In Newham, we have seen that it is possible to make a difference.

Like many local authorities, we have responded rapidly, in partnership with local community and faith groups, as well as businesses, to deliver massive support to people through the pandemic. We have, for example, guaranteed our Eat for Free programme in the face of growing financial pressures, providing free school meals to all primary children regardless of background and looking to expand how we help combat food poverty facing young people.

We are also deepening our plans to meet our 2050 Climate Zero goals and improve air quality so that better health outcomes for our residents can be achieved. Every year, right now, the lowest estimates are that ninety-eight Newham residents die each year because of air pollution; and 4,500 children are hospitalised annually because of severe respiratory conditions caused by toxic air. We know that respiratory conditions increase the risk of COVID-19, which disproportionally impact our residents hard.

We are among the leading builders of social homes in London – some 1000 alone will begin constructing during my first term. Such investment is vital for our local economy and a living example of an alternative to austerity. Councils have been on the frontline of the pandemic, and are best placed to respond to local needs. Of course, we need a significant increase in funding, to fairly meet the needs of both the COVID-19 pandemic and to reverse more than a decade of Tory austerity. I have been pressing the government for a fair COVID-19 Deprivation Premium, to take account of the real needs of boroughs like ours. We need greater powers locally so that we can go further in our efforts to deliver the jobs and services that people need, hand in hand with rights and decent wages. Working in partnership with the wider Labour movement, there is much to be hopeful for, and we need to loudly argue for these alternative policies, and demonstrate that where Labour is in power, this can be done.

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