In an email in my inbox about the impact of Covid-19 on working life, I spot the following:
CAPTION COMPETITION: For more than the past year, life as we know it has been ….
Scratches head, I don’t know what word should go at the end of that sentence.
I hesitate to write the word ‘unprecedented’ – it’s been used so often that it becomes a redundant word to say. COVID-19 has turned the way we live upside down; let’s face it, social distancing of at least 2m apart hardly encourages networking and meaningful socialising with friends ‘old’, ‘new’ and ‘yet to be made’. Now we can’t imagine life as we once knew it, with face masks in enclosed spaces being a legal requirement unless sat down eating food or imbibing a drink as simple as a glass of tap water down your local.
What has led to everyday life like this?
A little story…
Let’s wind the clock back to… 23 March 2020… 8.30pm LIVE from Downing St.
Word for word, the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson uttered:
From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home.
[We] will immediately:
· close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship;
· we will stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with;
· and we’ll stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals.
Parks will remain open for exercise but gatherings will be dispersed.
No Prime Minister wants to enact measures like this.
I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs.
And that’s why we have produced a huge and unprecedented programme of support both for workers and for business.”
Having just started at my local, the Hill View public house and B&B, as a bar assistant and customer service agent at the end of February – I was uncertain what this meant for my salary and how I was going to be able to pay my rent and the bills. Staring at my mobile phone, I was wondering if I’d be better off selling it and using that to pay the monthly SIM plan cost – at least I’d have more money for the rent. I really wish they’d taught us more about paying bills and finances at school. I knew my times table and how to balance simultaneous equations, but what about how I rearrange money to pay the rent if I don’t get paid at all or not enough. This was supposed to be a gap year to learn to be independent before my apprenticeship… Now, what do I do?
I scrolled through my contacts to phone my parents – mum and dad will know what to do, I thought. I also saw my best friend’s name, Miranda, who was always quite good at thinking at school – maybe she can help. We only talked yesterday about avoiding public spaces and work because this virus was so much more dangerous than SARS or MERS. My response was, ‘Don’t worry. I always keep my distance and clean my hands’, but she was insistent.
Unlike me, Miranda chose to stay on at our school’s sixth form to do her A-Levels because she always wanted to be a dentist. I didn’t entirely understand it myself, spending the whole day looking at people’s teeth, but I guess choosing a career is a very personal option. Another friend of mine always said to me, for everyone, ‘there is One Truth, yet people see that Truth in many different ways – he’d often translate it to me again as ‘Unlimited characters in the world throughout history, and so are the number of life stories’. If I thought about it for long enough – wise thinking, really.
[pause for reflection]
turning back to my own situation, after that tangent, I can cover the rent and bills for the next month or two, enough food to eat, but I guess I need to make sure I don’t waste money for a bit. With this lockdown and most things closed, it’s not like I can spend on luxuries or going out. The apparent thought that gave me some calm was, “What’s the point in spending on new clothes if you can’t go anywhere in them? The same is true of those trainers I was saving up for.”
09.23 pm It’s too late now for me to phone my boss, Mike. I don’t want to trouble him because he’s probably even more worried about the pub than I am. My colleagues, Katarina (aka Kat), Will and Anita, will be in a similar boat to me – they’re gonna need their pay. We’d become fast friends even though I’d only been there just under four weeks.
09.25 pm At that second, DING DING. A message from Kat on my phone:
‘Did you guys just watch that on the news? I was gonna text you – who’s going in early to make sure everything’s clean for opening but don’t need to ask that now. Anyone up to much this evening? Anita – how did your driving theory test go?’
Guess still in shock by how she could send quite a plain text, I wasn’t sure I should respond so quickly or say anything. I didn’t know what to say to myself before saying anything to my friends and colleagues.
I turned on an old Friends episode on Netflix and thought a little comedy before going to bed might do me some good. Whatever happens in the morning - I’ll deal with it then. I can’t do much about it at ten at night after all. The Friends episode about Ross’ sofa was hilarious – it’s still a good laugh even though it is only about four people moving a sofa up some stairs. The infamous word ‘PIVOT’ being the unforgettable word. It just proves a good moral lesson, you can only do things and should, but the outcome isn’t up to you even when you have plenty of help. Just because I applied to Mike at the local pub, it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d interview me. Now, what happens? I’ll sort it out tomorrow. I fancied a hot chocolate, so I made one and then went to bed.
Of course, we now know that the Government did act for someone like the young school-leaver in this short work of fiction. Workers in non-essential retail, hospitality and certain other job sectors were not left entirely adrift. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond in Yorkshire had already announced the Friday before that weekend, that the UK Government will cover up to 80% of salaries per worker who remains employed up to a total of £2,500.00 per month. Of course, at the rate of minimum wage, the young bar assistant in that story wouldn’t need to worry about being anywhere near £2,500.00 in his role. So fortunately for the young person from the above story, they were entitled to receive a minimum of £1,137.12 per month with Mike as the employer requesting support under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Employers could also top up the rest to pay full salary if they wanted, our fictional Mike decided to forgo some of his profits which he would have taken as dividend at financial year-end from over Christmas to pay his staff the missing 20% of wages that the taxpayer wasn’t covering for so-called furlough staff.
Mike held on to the hope that scientists would one day find a vaccine solution to Covid-19. Mike didn’t want to hold on to money now that he could make if and when life returned to what it did after a vaccine was created.
So for our young person on minimum wage, he didn’t have to go hungry just to keep a roof over his head because Mike was paying him £1,421.40 per month.
Being a major Manchester United fan, Mike was moved by Marcus Rashford advocating for free school meals for children who would have been so eligible for them if schools weren’t closed – so being a smart businessperson, he contacted his food suppliers and arranged for parcels of food boxes that he could distribute to the local community, particularly amongst his elderly clientele. Mike knew some of his elderly regulars were just as likely to be hungry in the lockdown as children from households on free school meals. One of the charities, he makes a monthly donation to, had posted an article about exactly this point a few weeks before the first lockdown even began. (https://www.ageuk.org.uk/latest-press/articles/2021/1-in-10-1.4-million-aged-60-have-been-eating-less-since-the-start-of-the-pandemic/)
Mike had grown up hearing stories from his grandad of ‘In the war…’ and ‘rationing’; he struggled to contemplate the idea of his grandad’s life at the age he is now, when there wouldn’t have been an NHS that we know and love today.
Given I’m a Blues fan, Mike and I might not have seen eye-to-eye on football, but he was a great boss to work for and I respected learning from him because of what he was doing for local people in the area. He cared about us as his staff, his customers in the community and did what he believed in. It was obvious to me why he was the way he was as a boss - his parents. They were amazing to me too - Mike’s mum would always bring staff home-baked chocolate chip cookies as well as jerk chicken lunchboxes. Mike’s dad really helped me out when the boiler in the flat wouldn’t work my second week working at the pub. He wouldn’t even accept a gift from me to say thanks for fixing it.
Mike was also great enough at checking in on us virtually every week to see we had enough food to eat as well as how we were coping with lockdown. A check-in chat on the phone for about five minutes or so, even though we weren’t having to go into the pub, was something I really valued. Lockdown was so strange to all of us after all. I don’t know about all of you, but video calling all the time is weird. Mike, even, arranged for a supermarket shop delivery for me one week when I had said to him that I hadn’t felt like leaving the flat.
We did manage to open the pub up towards the end of July but it seemed to me, not that I was keeping count, that customers were becoming less likely to come in to just spend time in the pub. By October, with new rule changes, social distancing, requirement to order food and no word yet on any vaccine, the last thing anyone wanted happened in November - uh-oh - another lockdown for who knows how long on what people now generally call furlough’ money. Mike still kept his end of the bargain, 100% pay, even if only minimum wage. This time I offered to help him with putting together and delivering the food parcels to our elderly regulars in the community.
After the second lockdown, we then found out Christmas was getting cancelled because of a brand new ‘tier’ - Tier 4. We’d been told that there wouldn’t be a lockdown again and that Christmas was definitely not getting cancelled. Then after that, we had the dreaded news of Lockdown 3.
On 23 March 2021 - in a lockdown - a year to the day the first one started - I got a letter from the university outlining the steps to register for the initial assessment to assess my suitability for the Social Worker Degree Apprenticeship. I became a little anxious but fortunately, Mike rang soon after breakfast. He kindly spent just under an hour softly questioning me with questions like: Explain why it was important to be on the apprenticeship; What is my motivation for the career?; and Why do I want to be a Social Worker? Like a personal trainer, he encouraged me to research news articles about social workers and social work, as well as information about the daily life of people working in the role. All of which was a really positive and supportive way to help, as was his nature, whenever anyone needed it.
Now with hayfever rife, boiling hot days, thunderstorms on the horizon and the majority of the lockdown restrictions lifted, things are tough but I’m still hopeful. I am glad Mike helped me to focus my time on useful activities that helped me ace my initial assessment day.
I know many friends and acquaintances who, as other hospitality, retail, leisure and even office-based employees or workers, are still struggling out there with jobs, with many places struggling to reopen or businesses lost; whilst they wait to apply for jobs, my recommendation is improving their knowledge-base is not a waste of time. Being better prepared is the best remedy to overcoming struggles in a healthy way.
This short story’s characters are fictitious. Certain current or recent historical events, public figures, organisations and public offices are mentioned, but the plotline and other characters involved are wholly imaginary. An obvious example of this disclaimer in action are the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Echequer of HM Government of the UK, the coronavirus pandemic situation and lockdowns are very real.