At the start of the pandemic the government got one thing spectacularly right when it identified that frontline food and drink staff, in shops, distribution centres and factories, were key workers – enabling the nation to be fed and watered despite the lockdown.
The prime minister, and other government ministers, have rightly gone on to praise those key workers for the bravery and resilience with which they delivered in their role. Indeed there have even been further honours bestowed to ordinary workers in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list alongside the knighthoods and OBEs for senior figures.
Now, the rollout of multiple vaccines offers hope that an end is in sight, despite the nation once again being thrust into another appalling lockdown. But the prioritisation of the rollout is all wrong. And not just because the second booster has been delayed in order to give more people immunity.
Somehow, the government seems to have forgotten the importance of those same key workers that got the nation out of a hole in the first place.
First on the list should be frontline health and social care workers (they’re second). But that’s to nitpick as they will no doubt be vaccinated alongside care home residents and their carers (who are top).
But where are the other key workers on the list?
In the Covid-19 vaccination programme pecking order, the list targets age groups in reverse order (starting with the over-80s), with the clinically extremely vulnerable and 16 to 64-year-olds with serious underlying conditions included in fourth and sixth place in the nine high-priority groups. It’s logical in a strictly mortality-based scientific analysis.
But key workers – including the police and teachers, as well as key workers from the food and drink industry – are not included. That’s just wrong. (Even more stupidly, the unpaid volunteers who will administer the vaccination will not be given it, either.)
This isn’t just about the safety of workers who have continued to expose themselves to the risk of infection, out of a sense of civic duty. If there is no food on supermarket shelves, if distribution centres are forced to close, and factories shut, there will be shortages and rationing in a matter of weeks, experts are warning.
The first issue is absence rates, which have started to rise again among key workers in the food and drink industry. In some parts of the country they’re approaching 20%. Chris Tyas, head of the government’s food supply ‘war room’, warned the government in March last year once they reach 30% shops, DCs and factories will be forced to close. Yet that’s the inevitable outcome of the current course of action.
And this is not just because these key workers are getting sick. Or are at risk of getting sick without immunisation. Absence rates are once again soaring partly because of contact tracing, and because a more ‘strict’ interpretation of self-isolation rules following the development of the new variant of Covid-19 is resulting in enforced self-isolation for healthy individuals. Rules that also fail to account for PPE measures taken by these workers. The closure of schools only adds to that.
Industry representatives in the Defra food resilience meetings are therefore warning the government of the threat to our food supply chain. Yet staggeringly, these warnings appear to be falling on deaf ears, not least because Defra itself has multiple priorities right now: borders, customs, meat inspections, and all the other Brexit fallout, but also its obsession with other post-Brexit programmes like sustainable farming incentives, environmental land management schemes. Ministers won’t allow those issues to be parked, just as the Department of Health is carrying on in its own sweet, oblivious way in terms of its obesity programme.
A “very senior Cabinet minister” was quoted on the BBC yesterday saying the government should put all its focus on rolling out the vaccine. That’s 100% right. And it should include prioritisation of key workers above all others, including the elderly. Even if that seems socially unacceptable, it’s essential strategically. If the government doesn’t act it will have yet another self-inflicted crisis on its hands. This will be the final admission they’ve completely lost control. It could be avoided by a sensible set of testing criteria, and an alteration in the prioritisation of the vaccine rollout. And it needs to happen fast.