A Hackney waste truck with attached NHS tribute billboard. Photograph: Hackney Council.

Absenteeism in Hackney’s waste services during the coronavirus pandemic is both lower than the national average and lower than the borough itself would usually expect.

The news has prompted Cllr Jon Burke, who leads on waste for the Town Hall,  to speak out in pride at the key workers risking their safety on the front line.

Residents and indeed people across the country have fashioned their own tributes to waste operatives continuing to provide the essential service, in the form of handwritten notes or early morning applause.

This month it was reported that a quarter of local waste teams have lost up to 40 per cent of their staff to illness or self-isolating, according to a survey of 250 local authorities by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport.

In Hackney that figure currently sits at 11 per cent, with projections that the service will continue delivering at pre-Covid levels for the coming weeks.

However, Burke points out that, when taking into account those staff who are would otherwise be in work but are forced to stay away due to Covid-related circumstances beyond their control, the absenteeism rate would be even lower, and lower than Hackney would be seeing pre-coronavirus.

Hackney waste operatives deepcleaning a vehicle.

Cllr Burke said:  “I’m speculating that what enables us to keep working at this level is that we have a fully insourced service that identifies very strongly, not just with the job they do, but the borough in which they operate. The sense of pride that our waste operatives have in their work is hugely important.

“One of the things about coronavirus is that it has indisputably settled some longstanding political arguments about what the most important work is in society.

“As a socialist, I might take this view ideologically, that nurses, streetsweepers and hospital cleaners like my mum are very important, but a society that is obsessed with markets has not remunerated people in that way. That’s been an ongoing dispute, of who gets the most from the distribution of the rewards in our country and why they get the most.

“The argument that CEOs of FTSE 100 companies have been able to acquire the highest level of income for themselves based on their abilities has been exploded, not by me. That’s not an argument that’s been won by people on the left, it’s been won by coronavirus.”

The Town Hall has confirmed that all absent workers in the service remain on full pay, as per council policy.

When asked whether the council was anywhere close to having to incinerate its recycling, as is currently being seen in areas such as Cardiff, St Helens and Inverclyde, the waste chief confirmed that the service is continuing to operate with zero disruption.

Burke said staff loyalty and performance was recognised by a “significant increase in pay and improved terms and conditions” when the service was brought in-house, and he paid tribute to its director John Wheatley as “the best public servant I’ve ever worked with”, pointing to protective measures being taken, such as deep-cleaning vehicles and practicing social distancing.

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