Covid pandemic: What happened to the idea of properly rewarding key workers like nurses, delivery drivers and supermarket staff? – Ian Swanson

In the early months of the pandemic, there was a lot of talk that Covid might bring about permanent change – not just an acceleration in the trend to online shopping or a major shift to more people working from home, but a re-evaluation of how important many taken-for-granted jobs are for our basic everyday survival.

The experience of a new deadly disease spreading across the country and the sudden restrictions of the accompanying lockdown helped us to appreciate the vital roles of doctors, nurses, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, teachers and others – many of them not among society’s top earners.

In future, we would want to make sure people like these, who had put their own health on the line for the sake of all the rest of us, were properly recognised and rewarded.

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But now, with case numbers falling, the vaccination roll-out going well and people daring to believe the end of all this may be in sight, that seems to have changed.

Online shopping may be thriving and working from home still seems attractive to many, but what has happened to recognising the crucial contribution of many low-paid workers?

In the private sector, we have seen Tesco’s attempts to slash the pay of distribution staff despite the company’s soaring profits – key workers who ensured supermarkets across Scotland were kept supplied with food and daily necessities are repaid with the threat of being fired and rehired on lower wages.

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And now nurses and other NHS staff who have been on the frontline of the battle against Covid for the past year, saving lives, preserving hope and easing pain at great personal sacrifice and risk, are being offered a one per cent pay rise from the UK Government. Ministers say it’s all they can afford, despite the many billions of pounds they have been spending on measures throughout the pandemic.

NHS staff have been on the frontline of the battle against Covid for the past year (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

The story is not much better in Scotland. Here there was at least a £500 one-off “thank you” bonus and the one per cent increase is described as an “interim” pay rise, but NHS workers are still angry at the “insult”.

There are stories of nurses having to resort to foodbanks to feed their families or skipping meals so their children can eat properly, having to borrow money to pay the bills.

One union official said: “NHS staff have worked throughout the darkest days in health service history. They were expecting a fair increase that reflects their exceptional efforts."

But even from a government point of view, the mean approach to nurses’ pay is a bad policy. Not only does it not look good, it could prove extremely costly.

Official figures showed well over 3,000 nursing vacancies in Scotland at the end of September. And that shortage could now be exacerbated by exhausted nurses who feel they have been kicked in the teeth deciding to leave, resulting in a massive bill for agency staff to make up the numbers.

There will be many lessons to learn from the handling of the Covid crisis, but one conclusion which could not only help with any future pandemic but also create a bit more justice in the meantime would be that we must ensure those who perform the most valuable roles in society are not among some of the lowest-paid.

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