The Papers

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Mary in the News Guardian

Health and care workers were deservedly applauded from the start of the Covid lockdowns.

But other key workers were neglected. I’m thinking of those who keep our banks open. Many people can go online but others cannot cope.
Opening the banks was vital for them.

But I have been told that verbal and aggressive behaviour towards bank staff has grown exponentially throughout lockdown.

It’s astonishing how thoughtless people can sometimes be. I was told of the person who put her bank card in her mouth while foraging in her bag.

She then expected the cashier to handle the card and got abusive when told this wasn’t going to happen.

Nationwide Building Society representatives are rightly very worried about abusive and violent actions against their staff.

They asked me to support their campaign in association with the Co-Op and the shop workers’ union, Usdaw to expose abuse of their workers.

An MP who represents the Co-Op is trying to put a Bill through Parliament to toughen the law and further protect retail workers.

The Usdaw union usually mounts a campaign to urge respect for their members and to call for tough action on violence in the run-up to Christmas.

This Christmas is going to be quite different thanks to Covid. We now have the rule of six in social gatherings anywhere and that will kybosh many family gatherings. There may be other restrictions and local lockdowns.

No one likes these restrictions and we may get more fractious and frustrated. But let’s respect those who run risks in serving us. We should always treat others as we would want to be treated.

Mary in the Journal

Few fiction writers could have plotted a year like 2020: Trump rushed to hospital weeks before a landmark election and a British Prime Minister with a large Commons majority struggling to contain internal dissent while bumbling from one mistake and misspeak to another?

It would have seemed far-fetched to forecast 130,000 postponed weddings, a James Bond blockbuster delayed twice, thousands of students in lockdown, and hundreds tested positive for the virus, as we have sadly seen at Northumbria University.

The budding novelist would also have been mocked for suggesting that Tory Chancellor, Rishi Sunak would dump his ideological textbooks and deploy state power to pay ten million people.

Sunak’s now fading furlough scheme was described as bold and enlightened statecraft. The Labour opposition and the TUC rightly offered constructive support to the government in a national emergency while highlighting shortcomings and errors when necessary.

Sadly, and more predictably, the government’s ideological blinkers worsened problems for mass testing. Ministers over-promised with grandiose hype about world-beating moonshots but under-delivered by relying on private national companies rather than local authorities to trace people – call centres versus shoe leather.

A reliable test and trace system became more urgent when schools returned, and the usual bout of colds erupted. The symptoms are alike, but people are having to isolate because they cannot tell the difference and only 10% of tests are returned within 24 hours.

The government also tends to snub local councils, which they wrongly see as a threat. Here’s a local example. The government decided to establish a testing site on a car park in Wallsend after minimal consultation. The site afflicts local homes and businesses, which wasn’t necessary because an alternative and accessible site was available nearby if only they had asked.

We may now all be restricted for many months and Christmas may be ruined. Yet, Sunak is reverting to type by dramatically reducing support for the now four million furloughed staff whose companies are struggling to follow necessary government guidelines and reduced customer footfall.

Sunak’s new scheme may perversely enable employers to keep one full-timer rather than two part-timers. It harks back to the sink or swim mentality of the Thatcher years and will hit the lowest paid in the North.

We face 1980s-style levels of joblessness. One official body says that unemployment will treble while another says it will double from pre-Covid levels. We are in for hard times either way. Again, I make a plea for young workers whose careers and incomes could be permanently scarred by this crisis.

Short-sighted decision-making today risks long-term damage to sustainable industrial capacity that is critical for our economic future. The government’s one-size-fits-all approach is just wrong, so Labour is proposing a more flexible and targeted scheme that would only benefit certain businesses and would support them to bring workers back part time – as happens in many other countries.

We need a national plan to recover jobs, retrain workers, rebuild business, and prevent a second lockdown. Borrowing is essential and easier thanks to low interest rates. Extending the furlough could pay for itself by reducing redundancy and social security payments.

Many initially gave the benefit of the doubt to the government but they have squandered such goodwill. More people now suspect that the Conservative party remains dominated by the voices of privilege and chumocracy, more than by those representing the party of effort and reward; that it protects vested interests which bankroll the party ahead of the interests of the public; that too often government roles seem handed out based on who knows whom, rather than who knows what. That is the trenchant assessment of former Conservative Cabinet minister, Justine Greening.

However, the ending of the book of Covid is still being penned. The government can still change the plot and, with the support of the Opposition, finally get a grip on testing and economic protection for the common good.