UK Politics

Coronavirus: Applause for key workers 'is not enough'

Clapping Image copyright webphotographeer

NHS workers, police and firefighters must get better pay and treatment after they "see us through" the coronavirus crisis, a union leader has said.

Matt Wrack, of the Fire Brigades Union, said many of his members were working at testing centres, delivering health supplies and transporting bodies.

He called the weekly applause for NHS and other key workers "great", but added that "clapping is not enough".

The Home Office said it was "very grateful" to firefighters.

They were "going above and beyond the day job to support the NHS and protect communities by assisting ambulance services, transferring patients and delivering PPE (personal protective equipment), food and medicines", it added.

Public sector pay was frozen for two years in 2010, except for those earning less than £21,000 a year, and rises were capped at 1% from 2013 to 2018.

The FBU estimates that, on average, its members are earning £4,000 a year less than they would had their salary increases matched inflation over the past decade.

"Firefighters haven't felt particularly valued for a long time," Mr Wrack said.

But he added: "Something that lots of people are beginning to comment on, including people in government, is the key workers who will see us through this crisis."

The FBU, fire service employers and the National Fire Chiefs Council have agreed that firefighters can volunteer to help with tasks such as driving ambulances, delivering food and medicine to vulnerable people, assembling face masks for NHS workers and moving dead bodies.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Firefighters are disinfecting equipment to prevent the spread of coronavirus

"It's great that people are going out and clapping on a Thursday night," said Mr Wrack, "but the question will be - because clapping is not enough - what are we going to do as a society to redress the balance a bit and give recognition?"

His demands were not "all about wages", he said, adding that pensions had been eroded and workers had to "have confidence" employers were ensuring their safety.

The government has announced up to 10 million key workers can book a coronavirus test.

But Mr Wrack said: "There's been a lot of frustration at how slow the UK seems to have been on getting testing up to the levels that we've seen in other countries."

He added: "Those were political decisions and the people who made them need to be held to account over it. And that needs to start pretty immediately."

The government announced last year that it was awarding above-inflation pay rises to hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.

Responding to Mr Wrack's comments, a Home Office spokesperson said the extra work done by fire and rescue staff was "hugely important and we are working with the National Fire Chiefs Council to ensure they are properly protected and have the support they need".