Much has been written in the news lately about how best to protect the health of postal workers during a pandemic. At a time when we’re all beginning to reconsider what or who constitutes a ‘vital’ worker, it’s becoming increasingly apparent just how critical Royal Mail workers are. Both Royal Mail employers and employees have played a big part in this: they have been designated as an essential service by the government, and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) has suspended planned strike action. Postal workers will become even more critical if plans to distribute home testing kits for Covid-19 are scaled up.
But Royal Mail workers today face a difficult job, and not just because of growing traffic in parcels of essential goods —such as medicine — as people self-isolate. Recently, CWU members have staged walkouts following complaints about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and insufficient working space to observe government rules about social distancing. Dave Ward, Secretary General of the CWU, has criticised bosses for continuing to prioritise commercial mail, and failing to protect its workers by not implementing rotational working patterns. Ward expressed fears over the effects this could have not just for Royal Mail staff, but for the public at large: “many of our members […] [worry] they could become ‘super-spreaders’”.
These are not recent fears, however. Because of the public-facing nature of much employment in the Victorian Post Office, and the handling of letters and parcels in London that circulated throughout the entire country, there has always been concern about the spread of infectious disease through contact with the mail. Much of this concern focused on the dangers that such diseases posed to staff. The Victorian Post Office provided relatively generous rates of sick pay and free medical care – the former to encourage workers to report sickness earlier and the latter to check against malingering. Postal staff were expected to quarantine themselves if they or a family member became sick from diseases such as scarlet fever, for example, and the Post Office Medical Service provided free vaccinations for all staff for diseases such as smallpox.
At the same time, there were often complaints that the working conditions of the Post Office were often responsible for the spread of these kinds of diseases. These concerns became very apparent during the 1889–90 influenza epidemic, where postal workers across the country were amongst the first reported to have contracted the illness. At the General Post Office in London a third of the staff were reported as having contracted the flu, though it was frequently recorded as catarrh, cold, fever or something similar for the purposes of official expediency or because of inadequate diagnoses. Telegraphists, who worked in two large rooms at the General Post Office building in St Martin’s le Grand, were very severely affected, with over 38 per cent of the workforce contracting the disease. Commentators at the time were aware of how the cramped conditions might have encouraged flu to spread through the workforce. Unions were active, too, in trying to agitate for conditions to better protect staff from the dangers posed by infectious disease: in the interwar period, for example, workers complained frequently about the ‘death germs’ they encountered when handling damaged parcels.
This new phase in the medical history of the Post Office that we’re all witnessing reminds us that these are not new problems: rather, managing the spread of disease has been a concern that has long plagued postal employers, employees, and the public, too. The tension amounts to the fact that all kinds of physical communication – including the postal kind – leaves us vulnerable in a pandemic. At the same time, however, that very same communication is also critical to our collective physical and mental well-being. As a project, we will be spending the next few years thinking about how Post Office employers tried – and often failed – to articulate and resolve such tensions in ways that pleased both its workers and its public. In the meantime, perhaps consider putting up a note to your postie to say thanks.
Dr Laura Newman: @laura_c_newman
Prof David Green: @davidrgreenuk