“The virus might make people realise that we are part of a community, and the idea that there is no such thing as society is not the right approach, because this is a time when we’re all going to need each other.”
Ian Hodson is national president of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), which has represented employees in the food sector, from production to retail, since 1847.
His members have suddenly found themselves on the front line of the fight against Covid-19, as they work round the clock to keep the nation fed during the crisis.
“It’s nice to hear food workers being called essential workers rather than low skilled and low paid workers. It’s nice for the recognition that they’ve always been essential, and this is a time when the skills of those workers are becoming apparent,” he said.
Panic buying as a result of anxiety caused by the outbreak is putting pressure on food supply chains. But Mr Hodson feels it is unnecessary.
He said: “At this moment in time there is no threat to food supply. The idea of people rushing out and panic buying is an over-reaction. It’s going to cause a problem we don’t actually have,” he explained.
“I keep hearing about the ‘blitz spirit’ and the stiff upper lip. Well, I’m sorry, we’re not seeing that, we’re seeing panic and selfishness. I understand, people are looking out for their families, and they’re worried, but the reality is it’s a panic that doesn’t need to happen.
“It’s more to do with a failure of government, a lack of leadership. The ‘some of you are going to die’ approach of the Prime Minister shows the shambolic nature at the heart of the government. Boris Johnson hides, what sort of leadership is that?”
A government pledge to provide a universal income would help to allay fears according to Mr Hodson.
“I notice that Richard Branson has got his begging bowl out, asking for £7.5 billion for a bail out for the aviation industry.
“I’d rather see that money go back into the pockets of people that actually live and pay their taxes in this country, instead of people that avoid it.
“That money could be used as a universal income to ensure people aren’t going to suffer more than they need to because they’ve been unfortunate to find themselves in insecure and exploitative employment.”
Full guaranteed sick pay to all those self-isolating would be another important step for Mr Hodson.
“We’ve got issues with employers who don’t pay people sick pay, or use agency or zero-hour contracts, who are not committed to ensuring those workers have a form of protection.
“They need to be taken to task. We have to name and shame them.”
People are already taking action to protect their communities, with the Wandsworth Covid-19 Mutual Aid Facebook group an example of how local people are mobilising to support vulnerable individuals and organise shopping trips for those self-isolating.
Mr Hodson believes the trade union and labour movements are in a unique position to support such grassroots initiatives.
“I think this is an opportunity to point out how a country can improve and better itself by working collectively, as opposed to this idea that you’re all on your own, because this means panic buying,” he said.
“I think it’s up to us to explain this to people. For too long we’ve allowed the wrong people to explain the hardship that people are suffering. It used to be down to the unemployed, then it was too many people on the sick, then it was down to too many immigrants.
“The reality is it’s been decisions made by government that have resulted in people struggling.
“It’s the lack of collective bargaining, it’s the failure to allow trade unions to organise and operate in the economy, it’s the deliberative individualisation of our economy that’s created the hardship that people are suffering.
“To rely on politicians to do it is wrong. We now need to make politicians listen to people. That means people actually creating the future that they want and forcing politicians to adapt to that.”