Two years on from the first Covid-19 lockdown which was commemorated on 23 March in the National Day of Reflection, we are now beginning to look back on the UK’s response to the pandemic. In addition to the devastating number of deaths and the government’s handling of the crisis, the vital role of key workers who carried us through this difficult time must not be forgotten. We need to remember the sacrifices they made for our country and learn what can be done in future to support people working in front-line jobs.
A report published in September last year by the RSA examines the pandemic’s impact on the finances and quality of life of key workers. At the time of its publication, approximately one third of the UK workforce were key workers within sectors such as healthcare, education, and the food industry. The report uses survey data to evaluate the effectiveness of the support offered to these groups in 2020 and 2021, using pre-pandemic data in places for comparison.
Mistreatment of key workers during the pandemic
Among the concerns of key workers published in the report, one of the most common was a deterioration in mental health, with the two most affected groups being health or social care workers and those working in the food industry. This is not surprising as it is well-known that key workers had to contend with increased pressure and workload over the course of the pandemic, leading to a poor work-life balance. The RSA’s report substantiates anecdotal evidence of abuse in these workplaces or fear of abuse due to increased verbal aggression. Examples include reports of being coughed on by members of the public - an aggression linked specifically to the spread of Covid-19. This issue was widely reported in the media in previous years for affecting key services such as the police. The highest percentage of respondents who admitted to experiencing poor mental health as a result of abuse from the public were supermarket workers (35%) followed by NHS staff (14%).
Healthcare workers also identified their increased workload as having an adverse impact on their mental wellbeing. This too is unsurprising when we think about the widely-documented understaffing and the influx of Covid-19 patients brought by the pandemic, as well as the additional PPE and resources needed to protect staff from catching the virus.
The economic toll on key workers
Unfortunately, mental health is not independent of the other impacts highlighted in this report. Economic security, physical health and access to support networks during lockdown are all contributing factors.
The RSA’s report takes a more qualitative approach to examining the financial problems faced by some key workers during the pandemic, focusing on what it terms ‘economic security’ rather than income data alone. In an introductory statement to their findings, their Economic Security Observatory (ESO) defines the term as:
“the degree of confidence that a person can have in maintaining a decent quality of life now and in the future, given their economic and financial circumstances.”
In their investigations, the financial security of other income earners within a household were also taken into consideration. 26% of key workers reported a decrease in pay affecting at least one member of their household with 31% of those respondents being dependent on another person’s household income. While many essential workers did financially well during the pandemic, with some supermarket workers reporting a pay rise, workers with the lowest incomes were still hit the hardest. The survey found that over 40% of those with little to no personal savings experienced a loss in household income.
How can support for key workers be improved today?
Attempts have been made to show appreciation for the sacrifices of essential workers during the pandemic while many of us were furloughed or working from the safety of our homes.
The nationwide Clap For Carers initiative broadened its influence to offer discounts for key workers within retail and company services.
The London mayor promised to ‘recognise the sacrifice’ of key workers and open up the access to privileges such as cheaper housing.
The Government set plans to prioritise vaccinations for healthcare workers and support services to ensure they are protected in completing their duties.
However, these efforts do little to rectify the day-to-day aggressions or pressures experienced by key workers between 2020-2021. Many still feel forgotten, undervalued or underpaid. Therefore, two years on, we must continue to thank our front-line for all they have done to protect us and our livelihoods throughout the Covid-19 pandemic - and demand more from policymakers in order to protect them. This means enhanced statutory sick pay, improved working conditions, increased staffing, reduced working hours, better mental health support, and income raised to Real Living Wage.