Shop workers, particularly those in supermarkets and other food stores, have been on the frontline during this pandemic, supplying us with the essentials of life and keeping the nation fed.
Unlike many of us, they do not have the option of working from home and play an essential role in society and the economy as key workers. For some vulnerable members of our community their local retail workers may be their only human contact each week, providing a social lifeline in this difficult period of isolation.
My constituency, Blaydon, has one of the highest densities of shop workers in the country, with 24% of all jobs in retail with the Metrocentre and a number of local shopping centres providing much of our employment. While many supermarkets have reported a good year, other stores face real uncertainty over their future, and that of their staff, who may have been furloughed for many months.
Throughout the pandemic, the majority of customers have shown real support for the critical role that shop workers and delivery drivers are doing during this crisis. In some cases though, low stock, restrictions on product availability, face masks and social distancing requirements have provided new flash points for the longstanding problem of abuse against workers.
Violence and abuse should never be tolerated in any workplace, yet retail workers continue to face situations that are not only deeply unpleasant, but at times put their health and lives at risk.
Just like our emergency services, many of us will have read reports of customers coughing or even spitting at shop staff in an attempt to infect them. The Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that such incidents will be treated as assaults and these events should always be reported to the police.
And as a result of panic buying, a number of retailers are continuing to enforce restrictions on the number of certain goods that customers can purchase. When shop staff have been asked to enforce these restrictions at the tills, all too often this has created another flash point for threats, abuse and violence.
Last week, a member of my own staff witnessed such an incident, where a shop worker was spat at for asking someone to wear a mask going into the store. I raised the issue in the House of Commons the following day and called on the Government to bring forward a debate in Parliament on the unacceptable behaviour of a minority towards shop workers.
I am pleased to see that the shop workers union Usdaw is also campaigning for ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation that will tackle abuse against workers dealing with the public. assaulting a shop worker to be made a specific criminal offence, to make it clear that abuse is not part of the job. I support their calls to the Home Secretary to request that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency given the current situation.
But to provide full protection, the government must go much further. Usdaw is demanding that shop workers must be entitled to a real living wage of at least £10 per hour, with a minimum 16 hours per week for everyone who wants it, with contracts based on the normal hours worked and an end to zero hours contracts.
If we truly value our key workers we must make sure they have better rights at work and a proper living wage. Too many people who are in receipt of Universal Credit are already in work.
New research published by Newcastle University this week confirms the link between cutting social security and mental health issues.That’s why I’ve been urging the Chancellor to retain the current £20 uplift to Universal Credit in next month’s Spring Statement. The uplift has made a significant difference to many families. If the government is serious about “levelling up” this is the very least they could do.
Over 16 million people – around one in four – are now living under local restrictions, but infection rates are still going up and there is widespread confusion about the rules amongst the population, most of whom want to do the right thing to protect themselves and others around them.
Viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday were left gobsmacked, following Boris Johnson’s ludicrous assertion that everyone in this country understands the new Covid-19 rules and restrictions, put in place in recent days. He couldn’t be further from the truth.
Only the day before, the PM himself was forced to apologise for providing the wrong information on new North East measures put in place this week. And a few hours before that, the Government Minister put up for the morning news round admitted that she too wasn’t across the detail, and even stated that despite her Ministerial position, she didn’t represent the people of the North East.
As an MP, my inbox has been packed with queries from constituents and employers who are rightly baffled by the knee-jerk announcements of rule changes from Government Ministers. Johnson’s own Conservative council leaders are outraged, complaining that the rules are too complicated. The Government’s lack of clear messaging has hampered efforts from the start, but it is becoming an increasingly serious issue as the cases once again mount up.
But it isn’t just the messaging that is problematic, it’s the way this Government implements its decisions that adds to the chaos. So, it was disappointing that the Government yet again failed to provide advanced warning of the new restrictions to local leaders, causing frustration to many local people and businesses, and leaving tens of thousands of workers in our region uncertain about their jobs.
The House of Commons Speaker has also been uncharacteristically critical of the Government, who are increasingly introducing new restrictive laws with little notice and minimal time for MPs to debate them in the Chamber. I fear the Speaker’s claim that the Government is in contempt of Parliament will fall on deaf ears with the Johnson/Cummings Downing Street rabble, who seem to hold everyone else in contempt.
Reducing economic support at the same time as introducing new restrictions adds to the toxic cocktail. The furlough scheme has ended, and businesses are trying their best to do the right thing. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak has made a political choice, deciding that jobs in sectors such as hospitality and events aren’t worth saving. In this region alone we’re talking about up to 80,000 further job losses before Christmas. Without further interventions from him, the fallout this winter could be catastrophic.
In our region, councils and Labour MPs are working together to ask for the right resources and enough funding to protect the economy and support local businesses that will be impacted by the restrictions. This will allow us to respond to the pandemic, whilst also protecting people’s livelihoods.
Our councils were right to demand increased protective measures. Coronavirus cases in my own borough of Gateshead continue to rise, and over the last two weeks we have seen an increase in the numbers of hospital admissions, with a rise too in the average age of those testing positive. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option. Our councils were also right to ask for the test and trace system to be under local control. The privatised model is clearly dysfunctional.
Local track and trace data shows that 80 per cent of Covid cases are due to households mixing in a range of settings, so we need to act now through restrictions to reduce the spread. The more we can reduce contact with people outside our households or support bubbles, the sooner we will bring the virus under control.
The one ray of sunshine in all of this was our recent victory on informal childcare. I raised the issue in the House, along with other Labour colleagues. Following pressure from MPs, parents and employers, I’m pleased the Government finally U-turned on its decision to stop grandparents, family members and friends providing childcare for workers. This served as just another example of a Government increasingly out of touch with its people.
NHS Volunteer Responders has been set up to support the NHS during the COVID-19 outbreak. To do this we need an ‘army’ of volunteers who can support the 1.5m people in England who are at most risk from the virus to stay well. Our doctors, nurses and other professionals will be able to refer people in to NHS Volunteer Responders and be confident that they have been matched with a reliable, named volunteer.
You can help by signing up for one or more of the tasks listed below. Once you have registered and checks are complete you will be provided a log-in to the GoodSAM Responder app. Switch the app to ‘on duty’, and you’ll see live and local volunteer tasks to pick from nearby.
This programme enables volunteers to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, which is permitted under the new rules announced by the Government on 23rd March 2020. Volunteers may be asked to show the active task they are responding to if asked.
Volunteers must be 18 or over, and fit and well with no symptoms. Those in higher-risk groups (including those over 70, those who are pregnant or with underlying medical conditions) will be able to offer support by telephone.
Your NHS needs you! Join our team today.
I have received a lot of enquiries from self-employed constituents over the last few days, and heard a number of stories from our micro-business owners, who are fearful for their future and require immediate support from the Government to survive the coming months.
Yesterday, I raised your concerns in the House of Commons and called on the Government to provide immediate contingency funding, to provide stability during the Coronavirus crisis.
You can listen to my speech here:
Last night the Prime Minister announced strict rules around the movement of people, which we must all take to reduce the spread of the virus.
The message is simple – stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives.
Stay at home
- Only go outside for food, health reasons or essential work
- Stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people
- Wash your hands as soon as you get home