A chat over fish and chips in the mess room begins with J, a young apprentice, talking about his trip to see his family. He says, with a smile on his face, “My Dad’s a bit of a bastard.”
“Your step-dad?” N, the maintenance manager asks him
J: “No my actual Dad.”
N: “Do you know who my best friend is?”
N: “Not my missus, not my mates, it’s my Mum and Dad. Gotta appreciate them.”
B, a maintenance assistant: “Don’t tell your missus that or she’ll kill you.”
After talking about families for a bit, M and B start talking about Tier 3 restrictions
M: “I was listening to Jeremy Vine, prick — “
B: “He’s like the middle-class fake working-man –”
M: “I don’t blame some of the people getting angry about lockdown. If it’s your business going under, and you don’t know anyone personally who’s like, dying, from covid, all you can see is not being able to get food on the table. You need to feed your kids.”
B: “And then if you do know someone dying from it, then lockdown is too late and doesn’t go far enough. And your family is dying because we’re all going to the pub.”
N: “If it’s your parents, or your grandparents, shielding, it’s a serious business. It’s what I told L.”
Me: “He’s isolating because of covid in his gym or something, isn’t he?”
B: “That gym needs to close, seriously. The owner doesn’t clean or get anyone to socially distance or anything — and now he’s got it.”
N: “Thing with L is, his Dad’s got terminal cancer. He’s wandering around like he’s too big for the rules, but if he brings it back to his Dad from the gym, he’ll never forgive himself.”
Me: “A’s isolating isn’t he?”
N: “Waiting on a test, his daughter got a positive. He’s ok.”
After lunch my mentor tells me the maintenance team are going back onto skeleton shifts: one 7-day week of 12 hour shifts with teams of three, followed by three weeks on-call. For the apprentices, that means one intense week a month followed by three weeks off. At first I’m delighted, but it’s not good for everyone. My partner is a teacher, so they’ll be going into work no matter what happens, and socialising will be difficult. All the apprentices will be losing out on our training, at a time when assignments need to be completed.
There’s guilt too. The operators already work 12-hour shifts with the bare minimum of workers to keep the plant running 24 hours, so their hours stay the same. The assistants find 12 hour shifts unmanageable with the amount of physical labour they have to do, and are already in a small team, so their shifts stay the same. Managers of course take it in turns to work from home or on-site, and are already permanently on-call in a crisis.
All things considered, we’re semi-furloughed on full-pay in an industry that’s kitted-out to deal with bio-hazards, with no threat — so far — of job losses. We’re lucky.
• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer in a Combined Heat and Power Plant