October 2, 2020

In the early hours of a January morning in 1958, Jack Fourt-Wells and Richard ‘Dick’ Stocking were part of a crew from Clerkenwell fire station mobilised to a blaze that had broken out at the nearby Smithfield meat market in London’s City district. The fire had taken hold in a vast labyrinth of underground tunnels leading to cold storage rooms.

Wearing their primitive breathing apparatus sets, Fourt-Wells and Stocking were sent down into the acrid smoke with an instruction to locate the seat of the fire. They were never seen alive again. Their bodies were eventually found among piles of frozen meat packets and animal carcasses.

The incident became the catalyst for a powerful campaign led by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to modernise equipment and safety procedures. The union called for breathing apparatus sets to be equipped with low-pressure warning alarms and audible distress devices, and for a better system of monitoring firefighters while they were working in such hazardous conditions. The campaign was a success. Government and fire service bosses were eventually forced to concede that the demands were eminently reasonable. As ever, it had taken a tragedy to spark change.

The FBU’s campaign was a commendable example of a trade union looking beyond the battleground of pay, and lobbying for the safety of its members at work. 60 years after the event, I hosted proceedings as a plaque dedicated to the memory of Fourt-Wells and Stocking was unveiled at the spot where they fell. We will never know the number of firefighters whose lives were saved — and, mercifully, whose names it was never necessary to inscribe on such plaques — thanks to the union’s efforts.

Other trade unions can justly lay claim to having been instrumental in bringing about a safer working environment for those they represent. The annual number of workplace deaths has been dramatically reduced from an average of over 4000 at the beginning of the last century to fewer than 200 today. This is why anyone who tries to persuade me, a lifelong trade unionist, that unions have no business interfering in such matters is liable to get short shrift. History shows that trade unions are overall a force for good when it comes to safety in the workplace, and we shouldn’t forget it.

All of which brings me to Covid-19. At all times and on all matters, trade unions must strive to ensure their demands are measured and pragmatic. Crucially, union leaders must always seek to take their members — and, where possible, the public too — with them. This is even more the case when the issue at hand is one that is politically contentious.

In that vein, it is surely vital, when assessing how best to keep a group of people safe during these times, to start from the point of acknowledging that the virus poses a meaningful threat to only a small minority of people — almost exclusively those who are either elderly or suffering from underlying medical conditions, or often both. For the vast majority who contract it, Covid-19 is not a serious virus, let alone a killer one. Most will experience either mild symptoms or none at all. In fact, as of 16 September 2020, the number of Covid-related deaths in England involving individuals under the age of 60 and free from existing medical conditions stood at just 308. And, for several of these, it is possible that Covid-19 was not the thing that actually killed them.

So it is against this background, and out of genuine concern for the credibility and reputation of the trade union movement, that I express alarm over the manner in which the leadership of some unions have taken unreasoned and insupportable positions in their approach to the virus.

Look, for example, at what is happening in our universities. Last week, the leader of the University and College Union (UCU) — which represents lecturers, academics and support staff — reiterated the union’s call for a ban on face-to-face teaching until the Government had curbed the spread of the virus. That the level of risk to those on campus is infinitesimal wasn’t enough to stop the demand being made. And given that universities are already in turmoil — as a consequence of mass self-isolation, threats of disciplinary action against those caught breaching social distancing rules, and the prospect of Christmas on campus, the demand, though not without its supporters, has caused exasperation among some students and members of staff.

Several universities, presumably motivated in part by an earlier threat by the UCU of strike action, have already switched to online-only teaching, leaving some staff feeling adrift and angry. A lecturer from a university in the Midlands told me this week of the deep sense of frustration felt by him and his colleagues after their impending return to physical teaching was abruptly blocked on safety grounds. Of eight members of departmental staff, only one had expressed a desire to avoid face-to-face lessons.

For most who do it, teaching is more than just an ordinary job or source of income: it is a vocation. Many educators feel that if someone is going to prevent them from doing what they love, there had better be a compelling reason.

Professor Sunetra Gupta, an epidemiologist who has attracted prominence and acclaim for her criticisms of the lockdown approach, believes those demanding a ban on face-to-face teaching have called it seriously wrong. “The risks are not sufficient to justify us not doing our duty — which is to teach our students. To not teach them is a dereliction of duty,” she told me.

Of course it is right that trade unions pay close attention to emerging risks and seek to shape any institutional response. No one could reasonably argue against robust measures to protect the genuinely vulnerable in any scenario. But what possible merit is there in a strategy that strives to keep healthy lecturers and students apart out of fear of a virus from which, should they contract it at all, the overwhelming majority — if not all — will make a full recovery?

After the Summer brouhaha over the question of whether and when children should return to the classroom — an unnecessary and near-hysterical ruckus in which the teaching unions this time had a hand — a similar excess of caution has infected our schools. Such is daily life now for many children, they could be forgiven for assuming that a world of facemasks, social distancing and relentless hand-washing was the natural order of things. Never mind the risks of contracting Covid-19; we are in danger of creating a generation of OCD sufferers who think the environment around them will always be fraught with danger. Again, the sense of panic has not been commensurate with the level of risk.

On one level, the over-reaction of the UCU and others might be seen as entirely rational. After all, the Government and media have done such an effective job scaring everyone witless, those demanding the most draconian and extreme measures might genuinely believe they are saving lots of lives.

The brutal truth, however, is that one thing has been missing throughout this entire debate: proportion. Safety in the workplace, as anywhere else, should be about implementing sensible and proportionate control measures to alleviate risk. It is this principle which underpins health and safety legislation. Instead, we have arrived at a point where, for many in positions of authority, any risk at all is too much and, where it exists, drastic action is required to eradicate it. That attitude serves no-one. Society becomes afflicted by paranoia, and individuals lose their ability to quantify risk — an essential skill in the armoury of any human being.

The easy thing for a trade unionist like me would be to go along with it all. After all, as long as most union members are still drawing a salary, why should it matter?

Well, it matters because the education of our young is being harmed, not to say our economy devastated, livelihoods destroyed and civil liberties curtailed. And when unions themselves are part of a crusade whose demands are utterly out of proportion to the risk, it behoves those of us who care about the movement to warn them to pull back, lest they alienate large numbers of rank-and-file trade unionists and incite wider public scorn over “bloody intransigent unions”. What a tragedy it would be if so much of the historical good done by unions in preventing death and injury in the workplace was overlooked as a consequence of the overzealous and irrational demands of a handful of leaders.

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