Dave Prentis is standing down – his successor will be confirmed on Monday (Image: Getty Images)
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Tory ministers must face a "day of reckoning" for their bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the outgoing general secretary of Britain's largest trade union has said.
In his final interview after 20 years at the top of Unison, Dave Prentis revealed that his union has already begun compiling evidence of failures in the UK's bid to contain coronavirus – with union officials gathering records from the union's 1.4 million workers.
He said that the sacrifices of key workers on the front line of the fight against Covid are "beyond the comprehension" of Tory ministers as he warned that many of deaths had their roots in Tory austerity that began in 2010.
Prentis, who has been general secretary of Unison since 2001, will see his successor elected on Monday, before standing down on January 22
He spoke of the terrible toll Unison members in hospitals and care, who represents public sector workers in the NHS and beyond, have paid to try and save lives.
"The hardest part was knowing workers had to go into dangerous workplaces because they couldn't abandon people who needed them," Mr Prentis told The Mirror.
"When we opened a PPE hotline we had 2000 emails in a just a few hours, I was so angry because when you dug into it the issues were often really simple, it was a simple failure of logistics."
In a heartbreaking example of the perilous conditions faced by some of the UK's most essential but lowest-paid workers, he reveals that the union had paid for a "small number' of funerals for its members during the pandemic.
PPE shortages defined the initial response to the pandemic
(Image: Getty Images)
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"These are some of the lowest-paid people doing some of the toughest and most essential work – cleaners and porters – and they are paid so little its a disgrace."
Mr Prentis said, "We've sent the Government accounts of people on the front line in their own words, it is terrible heart-rending stuff, and we never got a reply."
He also reveals that despite holding the Health Secretary's feet to the fire over PPE failures and other issues he that hasn't spoken to Boris Johnson during this pandemic.
"I was supposed to speak to him the day he went into hospital – but I spoke to Matt Hancock instead."
He adds: "I don't regret not speaking to Mr Johnson – you saw as London Mayor, he is a good time politician, I prefer to speak to the people who can make a difference."
Now the outgoing union chief is demanding ministers face a full investigation for their failures – and pledge not to punish the workers who kept the country going.
He said: "Ministers didn't learn the lessons and that cost lives – they saw what was happening in China and Italy we didn't act.
"Austerity meant we didn't have the stockpiles of things we needed.
"We opened up too quickly, imagining we wouldn't get a second wave, when history tells us there is always a second wave.
"People died because of these decisions – there has to be a day of reckoning, a forum for people to be accountable for the decisions they made.
"Some of those people doing the most badly paid jobs in our society are in public services and they deserve as much respect. as entrepreneurs and the leaders of big business.
"People deserve to live with dignity and respect.
"So many of our members are exhausted and they need more than clapping from ministers.
"They need a pay rise and to be treated with respect, their sacrifices to help the country need to not be forgotten."
Mr Prentis also threw his weight behind the Mirror's campaign, alongside Labour and the TUC, to get Britain vaccinated. "This has been the biggest crisis any of us have ever experienced – but there is hope in this vaccine and I'll be dedicating my time now to making sure that when their time comes everyone is willing and able to get it."
Mr Prentis has been a Labour party member his whole life
(Image: Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)
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As Unison's General Secretary Mr Prentis has played a big role inside Labour as in the last two decades.
His union backed Keir Starmer to be party leader – but also backed Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2017 – a decision Mr Prentis does not regret.
"I've got no regrets about that – he was a member of our union and throughout his time in that role he gave us a chance to be heard."
But Mr Prentis isn't all sweetness and light when it comes to the Labour party – and has a not so coded message for those who want to continue the party's squabbling in public.
"People need to stop squabbling and airing their dirty laundry in public.
"If we've got a disagreement we handle it in private, but we need to convince the public that Labour is a united party ready for government.
"Because my members need a Labour government."
And asked if he has any regrets from his 20 years in the post, he turns again to politics.
"I regret not being able to convince Blair on privatisation – because that's been really damaging."
Unison backed Keir Starmer to be Labour leader
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Later, when asked about Labour's prospects of rebuilding the red wall and winning seats it lost in the north, he adds: "It was in the Blair years people felt we were turning away from them.
"We felt out of touch with working-class people's lives – we need to get that back."
The next Labour government he said faces a task like that which faced Clement Attlee – to rebuild a fair society in the wake of a more than a decade of austerity and the deadly pandemic.
"This has been the biggest challenge in my lifetime and we will need to rebuild – and we can't lose sight of that".