Like many of you I had activities planned for the months ahead along with personal as well as professional deadlines that filled my diary and head. Now it seems a virus that started last year and was only the radar of a few has transformed our lives in a way that a few weeks ago seemed unimaginable. One that makes even thinking about what the next day will bring let alone the forthcoming weeks hard to imagine.
The pace of change forced on us by a virus has seen a radical difference to so many lives it has been become almost incredible to contemplate. Not just by the measures that have impacted on our lives, but in countries across the globe as well as in the UK. Changing our working lives as well as our personal ones. Some of you like me will have lost friends and relatives and others will know about those who are struggling to make it through the close down of businesses and places of work. This includes those who are struggling with the demands of caring for the vulnerable as well as those working in the health and other essential services such as providing food and the collection of our waste.
There can be little to comfort for anyone on the toll this health crisis has brought us all. Further on though, when the future becomes clearer, our focus could and should be about the basis for change. Starting with addressing the shortcomings of hard pressed public services suffering from years of austerity. There are risks to drawing attention to this and the measures taken to assist those out of work taken by the chancellor. In my view the cracks are already showing over questions raised by the injection of money into the system. But who could argue against the financial lifeline needed to support workers who have lost their jobs.
How effective these will be is yet to be seen and will depend on how and if they reach those in need. Outside the slippage of the benefit system, surely the question must be, if there is capacity for a financial injection at this time, what’s changed? Just exactly what was the reason for the austerity drive to reduce the deficit 10 years ago? Was it political expediency, financial prudence or as most of us suspect the driven by ideology that left our public services on its knees.
In addition to the impact on those who have contracted the virus and the mental anguish of the fear of catching it as well as the stress on those in isolation, the onset of the health crisis has exposed years of under investment in the National Health Service.
As I write this, I hear anecdotal evidence of NHS staff having to make decisions in our conurbations about who to save and who to let go as a result of a shortage of equipment and beds. This in addition to the lack of personal protection equipment for medical staff and the selective approach to testing. Now I see that after the advice not to go to hospitals and surgeries for those who suspect they have the virus, now we should also avoid contacting 111.
Is it disloyal to ask questions about why we have so few nurses, police officers, a prison system in crises and our own probation service under pressure?
We see countless examples of human kindness and self-sacrifice; but we also hear of a plethora of internet scams and people preying on the vulnerable using the virus to perpetrate confidence tricks.
The same approach of kindness and closed minds appears to be happening up and down the Country in our work places. Most managers are undoubtedly going the extra mile to alleviate the stress of meeting the demands of staff while a few soaked in the culture of a service strangled by structure are less understanding.
Which brings us back to the shortcomings exposed by this crisis. This includes the struggle faced by the private sector in some areas of probation, which finds itself stifled by the terms of their contracts when it comes to delivering their obligations and support to staff in introducing measures of social distancing and working from home. The same has also been the case in parts of the NPS.
This said, we must use the exposure of these shortfalls as a means to press for changes whenever we do return to ‘normal’. For example with the facility management contracts for the cleaning of our offices. The decline in standards has been long in train but until now those who needed to heed this weren’t listening or if they were it wasn’t a priority.
If railways who are losing revenue are going to be supported with the running of their franchises then the climate is right for a rethink of the arrangement for the continued contracting out of vital services in Probation.
It also provides the impetus to look at working environments and workloads that have been exposed with the Emergency Measures. Like the constant pressure to update assessments in line with measure to re order priorities. Part of managing this crisis should be the catalyst to press for an assessment system that ends the duplication of work. One that would form part of the investment in technology taking Probation beyond the decades of neglect into the 21st Century. Along with staff training that extends through the qualification route to professional development of all staff that goes beyond process delivery to the basis of practice enshrined theory.
Napo’s vision in deference to those who would detract from its approach to the challenges of today will be to set the agenda for the future. Starting by turning the threats posed by this pandemic into the opportunities presented. Making optimism as infectious as the virus.
Keith Stokeld, National Vice Chair Finance