Denmark is helping those who can’t work due to coronavirus – why isn’t the UK? | Rosie Collington | Opinion

At just after 5pm on Monday, my phone rang. I missed the call – I was in one of Copenhagen’s supermarkets, buying groceries and toilet paper and soap and things I still do not need to think twice about getting hold of. Danes aren’t panic-buying, or at least not in a way that resembles anything like the videos I’ve seen on social media from my home country, the UK. When I looked down at my phone, I saw a string of messages from a close family member.

“Oh my god,” read the first text. And the second. And the third. “Oh my god. Oh my god.” And then: “I’ve lost my job.”

Minutes earlier, the UK government had announced new measures to combat the now rapidly spreading pandemic in the country, advising against all “non-essential” contact including visits to “pubs, theatres and other social venues”. This, of course, seems like a sensible move. So sensible, in fact, that many countries similarly affected by Covid-19 introduced similarly stringent containment measures days ago – which, in the lifecycle of a pandemic, can be a very long time.

But for my family member, who along with hundreds of thousands of other workers in the UK is employed on a zero-hours contract, any relief brought by the knowledge of government action was short-lived. His manager at the pub where he works full-time as a supervisor had already called him into the office with the news that there would be no more shifts until further notice. And there would be no redundancy pay. There would be no sick pay. There was no option to take holiday. In other words: no way to pay rent or bills, to get by. He has 10 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, but Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus just how little that counts when your contract makes it possible for a loss-making employer to stop giving you hours, with immediate effect.

“Oh my god,” I replied.

It was over a week ago that I first received an email from the university in Denmark where I am employed, advising staff and students of the need to self-quarantine should they experience any symptoms of coronavirus. Crucially, that email included the words: “Employees will of course receive their normal salary during the period.”

On Wednesday last week the Danish government announced it was entering a phase of “domestic lockdown” in its attempts to curb the pandemic. And although these stringent “social distancing” measures are now not entirely dissimilar from those outlined in Boris Johnson’s statement on Monday, provisions for most workers could not be more different.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. In the UK any household where a person develops a fever or a new continuous cough are recommended to self-isolate for 14 days.

Justin McCurry

Following negotiations with trade unions and employers’ associations, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced during a press conference on Sunday evening that 2.6bn Danish kroner had been set aside to prevent layoffs within private companies facing financial pressures from coronavirus. Under the scheme, which will last for three months, the state will cover 75% of the salaries of employees paid on a monthly basis who would otherwise have been fired, with companies paying the remaining amount. For hourly workers covered by the agreement, the government will cover 90% of their wages, up to 26,000 Danish kroner (£3,162) per month. And the agreement is retrospective, which means that for my friend Jan, who was laid off from his job at a hotel in Copenhagen last week, there is every chance he’ll be able to go back to work.

It’s important to point out that there are holes in the Danish agreement, which if transposed directly to the UK would leave millions of workers unprovided for. The self-employed, owner-managers and many on casual contracts will not be covered by the Danish government’s scheme. Although they make up a relatively small proportion of the working population here, these groups, which include many of the bike couriers still whisking through the streets of Copenhagen as I write, may well suffer as a result some of the starkest economic consequences of the pandemic.

But in theory, the employment package introduced in Denmark will buffer the macroeconomic ruptures that we can expect. The Jenga tower of debt on which the global economy rests may at least retain its foundations, as the means that sustain everyday life are bought, sold and rented. And in the meantime, the government’s response means most Danes aren’t panicking about coronavirus. We can pay rent, and there is still toilet paper in the supermarkets.

It is time now for the UK government to recognise that all these things are related. Its failures to protect workers will not only harm them, but may bring the whole system tumbling down.

Rosie Collington is a researcher and student based in Copenhagen

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