'I lost six family to Covid and had heart attack from stress in tale of two pandemics'

By Ros Wynne Jones

At the height of the pandemic, supermarket delivery driver Alan Letham found himself in the grip of a heart attack.

Over the previous eight months he had lost six family members, three to Covid. He was looking after his elderly widowed dad and trying not to pass on the risk of his job to his family.

“Suddenly you’re finding you’re the only car in the street moving in the morning,” he says. “Every day I got in, I took all my uniform off straight into a black bin bag.”

Despite losing his mum and his sister, Alan kept working, feeling responsible for his regular elderly customers and knowing his might be the only face they would see for days.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says, “knowing how lonely they were – how they’d had £2 on the mantelpiece for you all week, and you couldn’t even take it from them.”

By October, he was clutching his chest, in the worst pain of his life.

“The last family funeral was nearly mine,” he says. His voice breaks. “I did get upset going in the ambulance and saying goodbye to my wife who couldn’t come with me. I thought I would never see her again.”

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Alan kept working despite the risk (Ben Lack Photography Ltd)
Samson Muteke spoke of his struggle (Ben Lack Photography Ltd)

Emergency heart surgery saved Alan’s life, but he still felt guilty. “I’d had a heart attack from the stress of it all but I still felt I was letting people down – I should have been in work, keeping the nation fed.”

I met 60-year-old Alan in Middleton, in Greater Manchester, in July, with Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s General Secretary. We were at Munchies, a family-run cafe near a shopping centre, to meet key workers and hear about their experiences of the pandemic.

Alan, from Manchester, was already back at work, cheering up his customers again.

Frances and I were both struck by the same question: “These key workers are taking care of us but who is taking care of them?”

Philippa Bostock teaches at an inner-city secondary school (Ben Lack Photography Ltd)
Carol Thompson is part of our campaign to pay care workers fairly (Ben Lack Photography Ltd)

New polling by the TUC and Britain Thinks today showed the extent to which low-paid workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

As Frances says: “It has been a tale of two pandemics. This Covid class divide has seen low-paid workers bear the brunt of the pandemic, while the better off have enjoyed greater financial security, often getting richer.”

In Middleton, we met care workers, a meat packer and a teacher. Three out of five had caught Covid at work. All had given up so much during the pandemic, but all felt poorly rewarded and said “the clap was never for us”.

“Your taxi drivers, your bin men, your postmen, your care workers, the delivery drivers, the supermarket people, we were all there every day, but not much accolade for it,” as Alan put it.

The TUC’s Frances O’Grady says a reset is required (Daily Mirror)
Edel Enabwani (Rowan Griffiths)

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Samson Muteke, 50, from York, worked in a meat processing factory throughout the pandemic.

“It was an exceptionally stressful experience,” he told us. “The pandemic brought pandemonium.

“Everything had to change to keep people safe, but the targets didn’t. They demanded so much of us, with nothing in return. That’s the culture that needs to change.”

He said his daughter Samantha had been working on the front line as a medic and had Covid twice.

“She told me: ‘I want to ask Boris Johnson to do my job for a week’.”

Edel Enabwani, from Cardiff, and Carol Thompson, from Colne, Lancs, are part of our campaign to pay care workers fairly. When Edel caught Covid at work during the first wave, her pay was stopped because she was on a zero-hours contract. She ended up at a foodbank for her hard work.

“Covid showed us two things,” she told Frances. “We are all equal, and we need to live in a different way.”

Carol , 54, has the sole care of three adults with learning disabilities and has been doing 24-hour shifts through the pandemic – work for which she took a pay cut. She told Frances that if she had been sent one of Matt Hancock’s care badges, she would have sent it straight back.

“Their lives are in our hands,” she says. “Yet we’re at breaking point. We haven’t had proper recognition.”

Philippa Bostock, 34, teaches at an inner-city secondary school in Ardwick, Manchester.

She caught Covid the same week pupils were told they no longer had to wear masks to school and has ongoing symptoms that may be long Covid.

“We saw a massive increase in cases of domestic violence,” she says, explaining how hercolleagues went above and beyond.

“Kids were learning off their mum or dad’s mobile phones. We mopped up a lot of mental health issues. You could see other kids turning in their homework at 2.30am because their sleep patterns had been messed up.”

All five workers will appear in a short film to be broadcast on Monday morning, ahead of Frances’ General Secretary’s address to the annual TUC Congress.

“The pandemic,” Frances says, “should be a wake up call – we need an economic reset. It’s time for a new age of dignity and security at work.”

On the train home, Frances and I spoke about the people we’d met and how awed we were by their dedication.

“During the pandemic,” Frances said, “you saw some people saying, ‘I need to make a profit out of this’ while other people were asking, ‘what more can I do for others?’.

“The £2 on the mantelpiece that really stays with me. And Carol saying, ‘Their lives are in our hands’.

“These are dedicated people going above and beyond their duty. But they don’t want to be martyred. They shouldn’t have to be saints. Lots of us hope that if we work hard and we try our best we will be looked after.

“These are people doing all that and more – but they’re not getting looked after by the rest of us at the moment.

“And I think we owe them. It’s as simple as that really.”

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