Trade Unions make the case for testing, tracing and transparency

17 Apr 2020

Speaking after a meeting of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU and after the data published this morning by NISRA indicating that 157 people died up to 10 April 2020 where Covid-19 was involved in their death, an additional 39 more people than had previously been reported from the data on confirmed cases for the same period, ICTU Assistant General Secretary Owen Reidy called for more resources to be urgently deployed by the NI Executive in community settings such as care homes and for those front line workers delivering domiciliary care to vulnerable people in their homes.

“We welcome steps taken so far by the NI Executive in its preparation for the ‘surge’ in Coronavirus cases, in particular for acute care settings in the NHS, where dedicated and professional staff have saved many lives while facing the risk of infection themselves. That the number of tragic fatalities has not reached those threatened and forecast at the initial stages of the pandemic is a tribute to the diligence of Health workers and the efforts of those who ensured that adequate resources were distributed and utilised for the treatment of patients and the protection of staff.

“At the Northern Ireland Engagement Forum, the trade union movement  has worked with business and state agencies on two papers to identify ‘priority’ sectors, along with Health & Safety standards for those workplaces remaining open during the pandemic. We welcome the support of the NI Executive for the Forum and look forward to its consideration of the Forum's work today.

“However, as the weeks of the lockdown and infection have continued, more problems are emerging which require a similarly urgent focus. Clearer guidelines are required for that section of the workforce who are presently working from home, to ensure that there is a healthy balance between producing useful work with contributes to society and our economy, while meeting other family commitments, such as home-schooling children or caring for vulnerable family members. It is important to state that all employers must continue to apply the normal employment rights legislation to workers working from home.

“We are particularly concerned to note that it has now been reported by NISRA that 30% of deaths in relation to Covid-19 have occurred outside of hospitals, either in care homes or the community. We are very concerned that our vulnerable older people, and our members providing them care in the community, are at increasing risk as the pandemic spreads. The Executive must as a matter of priority engage with us on a strategy to both halt the spread of Covid-19 within the community and to protect workers on the frontline.

“During this public health crisis, high-level co-ordination between the NI Executive and trade unions on matters of health, education and economic policy is absolutely essential, so that there is a coherent cross Executive response which deals with all of the issues affecting our members.

“We need to make clear as part of wider society that there are no expendable people, that older people in care homes or in need of domestic support are valued by us all as much as they are loved by their families. We welcome the release of these statistics today from NISRA as transparency is essential for the common cause of protecting people from this virus. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and the more transparent all of the authorities leading this common effort are, then the more support they will receive from an informed and conscientious citizenry.  

“Mistakes have been made by the authors of the UK’s response to the pandemic, and our devolved minsters and senior officials must ask the hard questions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Looking globally, those countries which have been more open with greater transparency and accountability from the start about their decisions and the rationales behind those choices are doing better in terms of public support for necessary sacrifices and in their rates of infection and survival.

“Clearly, we need more testing and contact tracing, across the community in advance of the economy re-opening, and a clear strategy which is properly resourced for the task necessary.

“We would call on trade union members across all sectors, be they furloughed, working at home or a key worker, to contact their elected representatives and make the case for testing, tracing and transparency.

“When Northern Ireland moves out of this phase of the pandemic, preparations will need to begin for a possible second phase, alongside the work of rebuilding our society. The Executive must recognise that it has been the frontline workers that have carried us through this pandemic, many of whom are the lowest paid and most exploited. The trade union movement must be engaged fully in planning for recovery from this pandemic and delivering on the justified words of support and praise for workers on the frontline.

“We will continue to play our role in engaging with the NI Engagement Forum on COVID19 labour market issues, and the trade union movement will seek detailed and direct engagement with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and the NI Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response.”