In a time when politicians are regularly accused of being out of touch with everyday life, Nadia Whittome showed why her constituents in Nottingham East were right to place their trust in her during the last General Election. While no one would have blamed her for stocking up on essentials and hunkering down in safety, Britain’s youngest MP made the decision to put herself on the frontline of COVID-19 by returning to care work, the profession in which she worked prior to her election victory last December. With a unique, first-hand perspective on the devastating impact of the virus on the country’s most vulnerable people, we talked to the Labour MP about the ongoing lack of personal protective equipment, the impact of cuts to health and social care services and the Government’s response to coronavirus…
What have your experiences of coronavirus been since returning to care work?
It’s really tough on the frontline: residents and staff are very scared because there isn’t enough PPE. As well as that, there are not enough tests being done in Nottingham. They are currently giving 200 tests a day, which is much, much lower than it needs to be. It’s making it hard for care workers to get hold of them or book an appointment. It isn’t the fault of the local NHS, it’s that the Government isn’t prioritising testing enough.
Coronavirus has shined a light on the inequalities already present in society and the absolute scandal of low pay. Care workers just aren’t paid enough; they risk their lives for minimum wage, or not much more, and aren’t even being kept safe on the frontline. Lots of key workers will have to rely on statutory sick pay if they need to shield, which means some people will have to be made destitute in order not to work and to keep other people safe. A lot of key workers don’t even have statutory sick pay because they have zero-hour contracts.
So people are basically being forced to choose between risking getting the virus, or risking becoming destitute?
Yes, exactly. I think that is very stark in Nottingham where, not very long ago, a man named Errol Graham starved to death on Universal Credit. I think it’s on people’s minds that some are having to choose between one thing that might kill them and another thing that might kill them.
There have been countless images in the media of frontline workers being forced to use homemade PPE that isn’t fit for purpose. Have you got sufficient safety equipment in the care home you’re working in?
We’ve got masks, but they’re surgical masks, which are not the right type, and we can only use one of those a day. That means they have to last us between 5-15 hours, depending on how long we are on a shift for. And we’ve got visors, but they’re homemade – a member of the public donated them. We’ve also got plastic aprons and gloves, which on their own don’t amount to adequate PPE.
The Public Health England guidance is not particularly clear, and it’s also below the standard of the World Health Organisation guidance which is what we should be following. It’s ridiculous. This virus is the same everywhere and WHO have set out minimum guidelines for PPE, so I don’t understand why we’ve decided that people in the UK should have less protection.
I know that the management where I work [in the care home] have been trying really hard to source more PPE, so it isn’t a criticism of them either – it’s the fact that the Government hasn’t prioritised it. There is a global shortage, but that’s only part of the problem. The Government should have invested in stockpiling PPE, that’s what other countries have done. In 2016 the Government did the run-through to see whether we would be adequately prepared if we had a pandemic and the answer was ‘No’. Instead of implementing changes as a result of that, they just joked, ‘Well, I hope that we don’t have a pandemic.’ Now we do and we’re not prepared.
What was behind your own decision to return to care work?
I wanted to support my colleagues because I knew that they are under massively increased strain as a result of COVID-19. I knew they were already under pressure because social care has been in crisis for a very long time – we’ve had £7.7 billion cut from the sector in the last decade and people who bear the burden of those cuts are care workers, who are always low-paid and predominantly women.
In care work, the jobs being done and the people receiving care often depend on care workers going the extra mile. I knew that, as a result of COVID-19, they would have to go several extra miles. The Government might have cut spending for social care, but the people in need haven’t disappeared.
Care workers just aren’t paid enough; they risk their lives for minimum wage, or not much more, and aren’t even being kept safe on the frontline
You’re obviously exposing yourself to the risk of getting ill by returning to care work. Has that had an impact on your personal life?
I live with my mum and she's in the extremely vulnerable category, like many of my colleagues’ family members are. We’ve all been really careful by wiping down the surfaces in our house and changing our clothes immediately. It's exhausting being a full-time MP and a part-time care worker because both jobs are strenuous in themselves, but I also feel very happy to be working with my colleagues and friends [in the care home] again. This is a very isolating time for everybody and I’m fortunate to be with friends and family.
What are your thoughts on the Government response so far?
They were slow to lock down, slow to order PPE and slow to test, which has resulted in Britain’s death toll being disproportionately high in comparison with the global death toll. That is not political point-scoring; I wouldn’t be doing my job as a Labour MP or as a careworker if I didn’t raise that issue and demand better from the Government. It’s not about scoring points, it’s about wanting to save lives and stop avoidable deaths. The lockdown has to continue and I’ll be resisting any calls for lockdown to be lifted prematurely.
There are things that Matt Hancock [Secretary of State for Health and Social Care] could and should be doing. He should be mobilising UK manufacturers to produce PPE – the fact that we don’t have enough is a combination of a decade of spending cuts, a total lack of planning and knowing that we were unprepared but still not acting. I know [new Labour leader] Keir Starmer has been contacting UK manufacturers and they want to help, but the Government hasn’t been contacting them.
Why have they not been contacted?
I have no idea. I think it's incompetence. The only conclusion you can draw from the Government’s handling of this is that it has been shambolic. Whether it’s spending cuts, lack of planning or incompetence, the buck stops with Matt Hancock. We rely on the Government to keep us safe – it’s the very minimum we expect. But we don’t feel safe because we don’t have enough PPE.
Do you think there has been a change in appreciation for the jobs previously described by the current Government as ‘low-skilled’?
Well, we sure as hell found out who the real key workers are, haven’t we? It’s not the bankers, shareholders, Starbucks, Google or Amazon. It’s care workers, refuse collectors, porters, paramedics, nurses, doctors, teachers, teaching assistants, shop workers – these are all the people who we couldn’t do without. You and I both know that they’ve always been key workers, and the Government has finally woken up to that. It was only a few weeks ago that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel was designating care workers as low-skilled. I asked her in the House of Commons which aspect of care work she considered to be low-skilled, but she couldn’t tell me. That’s because it’s a highly skilled and important job, and while the Government is now recognising that, it’s not being reflected in workers’ pay.
So how do we, as a society, ensure that things don’t go back to the way they were before COVID-19?
We've got to make sure there is no going back to how things were. We can't return to the status quo because part of the reason we were so poorly prepared for this pandemic is because of Government decisions to prioritise the interests of big businesses above the interests of working class people. They were slow to call the lockdown because they wanted the economy – not the economy that serves you and me, but the economy that serves the interests of big business – to be protected, and they were willing to sacrifice workers in order to ensure profits would still be made.
The Sunday Times’ investigation shows that we don't have enough PPE because of austerity. We're still seeing now that working class people aren't being prioritised during this, so bosses are still getting away with paying people peanuts, keeping building sites open so that we can have a few more Costas. This isn't going to result in better conditions for working class people unless we keep the pressure on and unless we fight for it. That's not going to happen on its own, it's not inevitable. We're already hearing signals from the Government and we've got to make sure in the medium and long term that working class people don't pay for the current spending with Austerity 2.0.
We also need to guard against the measures that they may well take to protect the economy and get it back up and running again, like investing in dirty energy or going back on our climate commitments, for example.
Baroness Lawrence is leading a review into the impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. How important is it to try and understand why the virus seems to be disproportionately impacting people from these backgrounds?
This is really crucial. It's extremely worrying that a disproportionate number of black, Asian and minority ethnic people have died from coronavirus. Racial, class and gender inequalities have all been highlighted and deepened by the crisis, and we need a full investigation as to how and why that is happening. We need an intersectional analysis of how COVID-19 is impacting people and then, as a result, what needs to be done to mitigate that. Honestly, the answer is a whole system change because what this pandemic has shown is that the entire system is failing: there are cracks everywhere and people are falling through them.
But if these problems are widely systemic, how do we tangibly start to fix them?
The scale of the problems we face are existential and overwhelming. The answers aren’t going to come from the Government; that’s where many of the problems start, so they have to come from us in our communities. That’s very difficult when those same communities have been worn down by ten years of austerity and decades of neoliberalism. Whereas previously, during the Miners’ Strike or Poll Tax, people would have meetings on their streets, that’s all changed now. I think grassroots groups are going to be at the centre of transforming our society during and after this, helping to prevent any lurch toward right-wing authoritarian politics.
Mutual aid groups are really important as well. People are connecting in a way that they haven’t before with street WhatsApp groups and things like that. It’s about co-ordinating all of those things and joining together with what’s happening in Parliament. That’s what I see my role as being. I’m an activist, from an activist background, and it’s my job to pass the mic to people who are already grafting in those communities but not necessarily being heard.
Nottingham is home to a huge amount of people working in creative fields, many of who are recently self-employed and finding themselves falling through the gaps of the Government’s financial help plans. What can be done for them?
This is a huge issue, and I've been contacted by lots of independents and people from creative industries about it. I've written to the Chancellor [Rishi Sunak] urging him to close the gap in provision – I think there are very strong arguments for using an emergency universal basic income to do this. I haven't heard back from him about my constituents who are in the position that you describe, but I think we're going to need big cash injections to independent businesses. Particularly in my constituency, these are all the small businesses and independent creatives that make Nottingham who we are as a city. We can't have those going under, it means so much for our identity as a city and it's one of the things that makes me really proud to be from Nottingham.
I started off when I was thirteen at the Nottingham Contemporary youth group, and that was one of the things that politicised me. It sounds corny, but it really helped me to find my voice when I was a difficult teenager. One of the things we're well known for across the country, and beyond, is our creative scene, so I'll be fighting tooth and nail to get the funding and investment that it needs to revive during and after this crisis.
This crisis has shown that immigrants are keeping the NHS afloat and saving people's lives
Are you troubled by the anti-lockdown protests that have been occurring in America?
I am worried about that, and I'm worried about the far-right seizing on this in the way that they have in America. That’s why we, as progressive forces, need to be at the centre of this, coordinating the response at a community level so that people who want to sow division don’t hijack it.
This crisis has shown that immigrants are keeping the NHS afloat and saving people's lives. Someone's human and workers’ rights should not just depend on their economic utility, but I think this can take the wind out of the sails of the far-right who will want to use the crisis as an opportunity to divide people. But we just have to get in there and do the work.
With winning the seat for Nottingham East, starting life as an MP and returning to care work during a global pandemic, I guess it’s been a bit of a busy six months for you…
Oh, it has been a total whirlwind! Spending half the week on the parliamentary estate, and the other half on the estate I live on is a huge culture shock. My role isn’t to become part of the fabric of Westminster, but to learn how it works, pass on those lessons to activists in my community and around the country and use the mechanisms available to achieve change. There are a lot of arcane traditions and it needs a total upheaval.
Do you feel like you represent a different type of politician? As a voter, it feels different to have an MP that doesn’t seem to be part of the status quo…
Yes, I do. But it's not just about me making a change – I'm just a small part of it. I’m a representative of the bigger movement and force for change. I see myself as being a bridge between Parliament and that groundswell of change that is coming from grassroots movements.
You’ve been quoted as saying that life is particularly hostile for female MPs. In your experience, why is that?
We've seen that it's particularly hostile for women of colour, and I think that's because these institutions weren't built to serve us. They were built by us, if you like, but not to serve our interests, and that's why we need a system change. We don't just need more people like me in Parliament, good though that is, it's not enough in itself. That's why it's important for me not just to be there to diversify Parliament, but to actually materially represent the interests of my constituency, particularly people of colour, working class people and young people.
The majority of us only experience politics through the various layers of media coverage. How did the reality of Parliament differ from your expectations?
To be honest, I think my cynicism probably served me well because it meant that I didn't have a rude awakening when I got there. I was expecting it to be much like it is. I don't think anything could prepare me for the feeling of being treated as an outsider though, and the way that it's rigged not to work for people like us.
What do you mean by being treated as an outsider? Is that something you feel, or the way people interact with you?
It's the way that people interact with me; a lot of people are very supportive and I've forged some good relationships in Parliament, but there are also a lot of people that think that I'm an assistant. A Tory MP handed his bag to a colleague of mine, who is a black woman MP, thinking she was estate staff. Black women MPs in particular regularly get mixed up for each other, and I get mixed up with another Asian MP as well. There’s a lot of calling you ‘love’ and ‘darling’, which wouldn’t be the case if I was a man, and probably not so much if I was an older woman, either.
I’m a representative of the bigger movement and force for change. I see myself as being a bridge between Parliament and that groundswell of change that is coming from grassroots movements
Many MPs do come across as existing in their own bubble, unaware of how society has moved forward in the last seventy years…
When I first got there it struck me as to how far behind some people seemed. That contrasted with what I'm sure was their perception of me, because the conversations I have with my friends are not conversations that are happening there. So, for example, there's a members’ tearoom that you can only use if you're a Member of Parliament or a peer. When I was going in they told me that it was only for members, despite the fact that I was wearing a member’s pass.
This is a period of huge change for the Labour Party with Sir Keir Starmer’s appointment as the new leader. What do you see as the next steps for the party?
I think to constructively engage with the current leadership and to apply critical pressure to make sure that the important issues remain on the agenda. We need to maintain and improve on the progress made under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. For me, those really important issues are: radical change on climate, migrants' rights, and defending and expanding workers' rights. I’ve been thinking about that a lot during the pandemic, because there has been record levels of spending, but that hasn’t translated to workers having any more power. If anything, they have less power and that's what the Labour movement has to fight for.
You mentioned Jeremy Corbyn – what do you think his legacy will be now that he has stepped down as leader of the Labour party?
For me, there are two things. Firstly, shifting the terms of debate on the economy to anti-austerity. That was a fringe view when I first got involved in the Labour movement in 2013, and it’s why I supported Corbyn from the moment he announced his leadership bid. I was desperate for an anti-austerity Labour Party, and now we have that – even the Tories are saying they are anti-austerity. We can't underestimate what a feat it is for that argument to be won, that austerity was ideological, it wasn't necessary; we didn't need it then and we don't need it now. The other is that the Corbyn leadership opened the door to the type of people who are involved in politics. We saw fewer white, male, Oxbridge-educated technocrats and a greater diversity of people represented in the party, not just as MPs and Councillors, but as activists.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the LeftLion readers and the people in Nottingham who are currently being affected by COVID-19?
I'd like to send my love and solidarity to everybody, particularly to our frontline workers. And thank you to LeftLion for generating the quality content Nottingham needs during lockdown! If you’re struggling, or have an issue to raise, and you live in Nottingham East, please contact me at [email protected] and I will do all that I can to help. Stay safe and well, everyone.