I’m not usually an ideological sort. I’m still not. But lots of people have asked me why I’m so angry with companies like The Range and Argos demanding their workers go to work across Basildon, despite the global pandemic we are all facing and the clear risk to life this decision poses.
Here’s why I am.
As a Council we have a duty to protect the public. That’s the primary responsibility of any branch of government.
As many will know, coronavirus is particularly bad for people with underlying respiratory diseases and different types of cancers.
The virus attacks the immune system and for anyone who has ever had pneumonia it is similar, but a lot worse. For anyone with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), smokers, those with particular cancers or with a weaker immune system then it can quickly become fatal.
In the Basildon borough we have an 8-year gap in life expectancy from Billericay in the North of the borough to Pitsea in the South East of the borough. It is a phenomenally bad statistic for anyone who works in local or regional government. The inequality in health outcomes is stark.
The point of this short blog isn’t to pass judgment on the outcomes of Essex County Council’s public health polices and the state of Basildon’s public health challenges. There will come a time in the near future when we should have that particular debate.
Instead I want to highlight the current state of play in terms of Basildon’s health outcomes and hopefully illustrate why corporate bosses from The Range and Argos demanding staff turn up to flog hot tubs and mirrors is risking the lives of their staff and their staff’s families.
In Basildon, our borough’s mortality rate from cancer is significantly worse than the national average and it’s getting worse. In fact, the under 75 mortality rates from all cancers is significantly worse than the national average according to the most recently published statistics.
The percentage of current Basildon borough smokers aged over 18-years was 16.7%, which is higher than Essex as a whole. In 2019 emergency hospital admissions for COPD were higher in Basildon than the baseline for the whole of England. We have the third highest number of COPD admissions into hospital in Essex.
Respiratory disease and cancer are in the top 3 of early mortality rates for people living in Pitsea, Basildon, Laindon, Billericay and Wickford.
And if you were to break these figures down even further it is Pitsea and Basildon town centre where the health outcomes are at their worst. This happens to be where The Range and the Argos distribution centre are located. And it is the catchment area for their staff.
This means that the very people who are most likely to be worse affected by the virus are being the most exposed to it – either directly as a result of having to go to work, or indirectly as a result of their partner or loved one coming home and passing the virus around the household.
I understand fully that the idea of a lockdown is to halt the spread of the virus, not to kill the virus. We are seeking to delay its spreading so that the NHS might be able to ensure there are enough beds and ventilators for anyone who presents at A&E with symptoms and so increase their chance of survival. An overwhelmed Basildon hospital with too few beds or ventilators will mean people who could have been saved, will die.
It is hard therefore to understand how putting the very people and their families most at risk of the virus, into a workplace environment where they have a higher chance of contracting the virus, at a time when the NHS is already overwhelmed, is not a public health disaster waiting to happen for Basildon?
And why are we even debating this like there is a logical or rational argument for The Range or Argos to be open. The idea that either of these stores are essential is incredible.
Think of it like this – if you were told that you have to jump on a 12-carriage train to work every day, or you will lose your job and livelihood, but that on the train there was a bomb that could explode at any minute, but we weren’t going to tell you which carriage the bomb was on, would you still get on the train?
The chances are you wouldn’t be in the same carriage as the bomb so you might survive. You might not even have too bad an injury if you were a few carriages away. Then again, you might meet your maker?
Not a chance would you be told you had to get on that train by the Prime Minister or society at large.
So why on earth are we accepting that people who live and work in an area of our borough with higher rates of respiratory disease and cancer mortality amongst the population, should be forced to go and work in shops who are selling hot tubs and mirrors during a national lockdown?
The virus will lead to more severe symptoms more rapidly amongst people who already have a higher propensity to respiratory disease, which makes them even more likely to need to present at A&E where there is an even higher chance that they will die at the current time due to a lack of ventilators and beds.
So I confess that I am angry. I cannot see the logic or the rationale to keep people in work, putting themselves and their families and our NHS at much greater risk, to service shops that are not essential to providing food, medicaments or life-saving treatments.
These sites should be closed. All workers should still be paid, regardless of their employment status. Otherwise these companies could justifiably be accused of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
This isn’t about sticking it to capitalism and fighting an ideological war in the middle of a global pandemic. I’ll leave others to that. This is about knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong.
We are currently seeing the best of British business and sadly, the worst.
I’ve had some of the most heart-breaking conversations I’ve ever had with people on the phone this week. People in tears, telling me how they are being forced to go to the Argos distribution centre because they are agency workers so won’t get statutory sick pay and will be forced to wait weeks for money whilst their bills come out in just a matter of days.
All the while knowing they live in a house with someone who has an underlying condition. Imagine the grief people will feel if their loved ones are infected and don’t make it, all so The Range and Argos could ensure profits didn’t slip too much during the pandemic?
The council will do all we can in our power to uphold our duty to protect the lives of our residents. But now we need the Government’s help to truly protect Basildon’s most vulnerable people. And we need it quickly.