Protecting workers, getting relevant data, and the importance of democratic scrutiny

Whole groups of key workers are out working every day, and we still don’t know enough about the exposure and risks they are taking. I want to help fix that.

The numbers matter. Most of all to the NHS workers whose efforts to save the most serious cases need all the resources we can manage preserving for them to use to save lives.

The general public, those of us with jobs based in offices who do not have to be exposed – those of us who can stay at home – need to be doing everything we can and taking every possible precaution to avoid spreading the virus.

We are entering a phase of the crisis where new infections and new cases seen in hospital are almost all going to be from people who caught the virus post-lockdown. This is a crucial phase for assessing the impact of the policies so far and particularly for improving the protection we give to workers.

We’ve seen hospital doctors, GPs and nurses talking about the lack of PPE even for them on the frontline of the crisis. Green Party candidate and emergency doctor Alex Armitage has spoken eloquently on BBC Panorama about the need for testing for NHS staff and the wider community.

People working in care homes are getting even less priority, with clear risks to themselves and residents. The Alzheimer’s Society and other groups involved in care homes have now started a campaign to improve conditions for staff and residents.

With schools open for children of key workers and small numbers of others in need, teachers including our education spokesperson Vix Lowthion have been calling for more guidance and testing to keep them from getting ill.

In London, there is huge concern over the deaths of at least ten Transport for London workers, most of them bus drivers. TfL is saying that with drivers behind screens, and holes in screens being covered with plastic, there is no need for PPE, but they are also trialling middle door-only boarding and we do need more data on whether infection rates are dropping or not under these new post-lockdown conditions.

Taxi drivers and private hire drivers have raised concerns too. Many private hire drivers are suffering from a lack of proper sick pay from companies like Uber, and are feeling pressure to work, while their cars offer little protection from airborne viruses.

Supermarket and shop workers probably see more different individuals in a day at close quarters than any other kind of worker at the moment, and I’m very worried about the risks they are taking.

Even post-lockdown it took time before we saw limits on the numbers of customers in each shop, and new screens around checkouts, and it’s easy to see that people working in the aisles can’t easily keep a 2 metre distance from shoppers. Even if the risks are low from each contact, these workers are encountering hundreds of people every day.

Other key workers such as refuse workers, social workers, and delivery drivers and riders all need real world analysis – based on data from up-to-date infection rates – of the real risks they are taking, so that those of us who are scrutinising the Government can know what decisions to push for and priorities to set.

Public Health England advice on the need for PPE for different jobs is based on the risks of particular activities. But the overall risk of transmission a worker faces is not just a factor of the risk of each encounter itself, but also of the number of different people each person in each job is in contact with.

Most of the key worker groups above still have no access to testing at all, and the lack of testing in the UK is a huge problem, but we could know more very soon if we recorded the occupations of every person treated and tested for coronavirus, and of every person reporting symptoms via 111.

That’s what I am asking to see today. We desperately need more data in order to know how best to protect these workers now. Suitably weighted, data on occupational infections since lockdown would be invaluable in assessing which occupations, in a real world situation, are actually presenting the highest risk to key workers.

If we knew more about how many bus drivers and shop workers were getting infected, then precautions for the public to take, such as wearing home-made face coverings and cloth masks when they visit shops, could be recommended with real confidence. The BMJ has discussed these questions here, and made the case for more guidance on what the public can do in terms of non-medical grade PPE for daily tasks.

But we also need this data to protect against potentially making huge mistakes when infection rates drop and we start to contemplate relaxing some of the lockdown measures or sending some groups back to work.

It would help inform next steps in testing, the priority for rolling out PPE as it becomes more widely available, and help to illuminate the risks Government would be taking if it relaxed restrictions on more jobs and businesses (which it is coming under strong pressure to do).

And this data should not only be collected but also reported as transparently as possible.

This would help those of us in elected positions who scrutinise policy and debate changes in our democratic forums – to represent you as well as we possibly can. To put forward timely proposals based on evidence, to ask questions and provide challenge to the premise of government decisions in real time, at the right time.

In this video, recorded on my daily walk this week, I talk about these issues, and about the importance of bringing back Parliamentary processes and the functions of the London Assembly, including the ability to ask questions, request data and get answers that go on the record.

The example of recording what work people do is important, and asking for it in a democratic, accountable way is something I’m finding it hard to do without the powers of scrutiny that I have as a Londonwide Assembly member fully functioning.

For Parliament, Green MP Caroline Lucas has coordinated a letter from MPs across the political spectrum asking for the recall of Parliament’s functions in a virtual form immediately, and I could not back this call more strongly.

Constructive, ethical, democratic scrutiny is needed more than ever. But it isn’t working right now without functioning democratic forums.