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No surprise No.10 laughed at cleaners – it did nothing to stop them dying

Security guards and other low-paid staff were laughed at by a government that didn’t care about their lives

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
25 May 2022, 12.00am
Low-paid staff were left to clean up after boozy Number 10 parties and mocked if they raised concerns
Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

In a week of sickening revelations, the thought of Downing Street partygoers laughing at cleaners and security guards who tried to warn them they were breaking lockdown rules leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth.

A security guard was left “shaking his head” after being laughed at for warning about rule breaking, BBC’s Panorama reported this week. And today’s Sue Gray report shows this was no isolated incident.

Gray highlighted “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment” of security guards, and of cleaners, who were left to regularly clean up bottles and rubbish littered everywhere, red wine splashed all over the walls, and, presumably, vomit (Gray heard that one person had thrown up following a Downing Street gathering).

It is sickening. But it is also unsurprising. Those at the heart of government didn’t just laugh at cleaners, security guards, and other low paid workers. They sent them out to work at the peak of the pandemic – with no protection, often no sick pay, and no choice. And some died.

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Parliament’s own outsourced cleaners were refused furlough and had to travel on public transport to clean a parliament that wasn’t even sitting, despite the condemnation of their union and opposition MPs that they were being put in “unnecessary danger”.

Their bosses quoted Michael Gove’s claim that millions of the lowest paid workers were somehow all “key workers” – and therefore could be forced to continue to travel to work.

Minimum wage call centre workers doing non-essential jobs were also made to commute in and work in potentially unsafe offices at that time, their bosses again given free rein to designate their work as “essential” and “key”.

And if low paid workers got sick? The government did next to nothing to address the fact that over two million of the worst off had no right to sick pay at all, and millions more could only expect an unliveably low sum.

Emanuel Gomes was an outsourced Ministry of Justice cleaner. He died after working for five days with suspected COVID symptoms in a near-empty office, because he believed he could not afford to lose income.

Those working on public transport were left exposed, too. Belly Mujinga died after she had pleaded with her bosses not to make her work on the front line due to health vulnerabilities.

Security guards were three times more likely to die of COVID than the average male worker, the ONS found, with other low paid workers, particularly bus and taxi drivers, also at far greater risk than their middle class peers, and their communities also far harder hit.

No wonder the Downing Street security guard was left “shaking his head” and visibly upset by the carrying on at Number 10.

Boris Johnson claimed today he’d been unaware of the disrespect shown to cleaners and security guards, telling the Commons that such behaviour towards staff was “absolutely disgraceful” and “intolerable”. The prime minister promised to ensure offenders “apologise or are otherwise disciplined”. Later in the afternoon, he said he’d “personally apologised to those dedicated members of staff”.

But Johnson oversaw a government culture – indeed, an ideology – where it wasn’t just acceptable to be rude to low paid staff. It was acceptable to send them out to die. And we should never forget that.

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