Cleaning up

The fate of a Whitehall cleaner, Emanuel Gomes, should not be brushed aside

Artillery Row

Who is my neighbour? Or to put the question a different way, who is my cleaner?

The BBC had to apologise this week for suggesting that Emanuel Gomes, a government cleaner who died in the first wave of the Covid pandemic, had been working in Downing Street. This is partly my fault. In my sketch on Sue Gray’s report, I noted its conclusion that staff in Number 10 had during their drinking sessions subjected cleaners and security staff to “a lack of respect and poor treatment”, and I pointed out that cleaning had turned out to be dangerous work during the pandemic. I didn’t write that Gomes had been working in Downing Street, but some people, including the Today programme’s Nick Robinson, read the piece that way.

To Charles Moore in the Telegraph, this slip, for which Robinson swiftly apologised, is evidence that the presenter is a “propagandist”. Robinson can take care of himself, but as Moore is keen to talk about Gomes, and as I brought him into the story, I’d like to explain why.

I read about the death of Emanuel Gomes in 2020, in an excellent piece of work by Tortoise, a “slow news” outfit. The reporting is theirs, not mine, though I’d be proud if it had been. At the time, the story about an immigrant cleaner gained little attention, but it stayed with me, and came back to mind on Wednesday.

It is correct that Gomes worked not at Number 10 but a few minutes’ walk away, at the Ministry of Justice. But he was a government cleaner, and in a piece about government cleaners being badly treated during the pandemic, his death seemed pertinent.

Ah, says Moore, but the 43-year-old Gomes seems to have died of “a heart condition”, not Covid. There is a question about this. The police and ambulance services listed the cause as Covid. The post-mortem, some time later, gave it as hypertensive heart disorder (stating incorrectly that Gomes hadn’t been suffering from flu-like symptoms). Recall that in April 2020 Britain still had very limited capacity for Covid testing, and the coroner’s service was exceptionally busy. As the number of people dying soared, plenty of the excess deaths weren’t officially attributed to Covid.

But let us accept Moore’s point, and say that the high temperature, exhaustion, aching muscles, and disorientation Gomes experienced in the days before his death, and the lungs full of fluid that the post-mortem revealed, were in fact symptoms of his high blood pressure. Can we put his story back into the ignored pile?

No, because there remains the question of why someone as ill as he was received no medical treatment. The answer is instructive: a colleague told Gomes to call an ambulance, but he wanted to work his shift. Even as the government was telling people with symptoms like his to stay at home, he knew that if he didn’t work, he didn’t get paid.

He knew that if he didn’t work, he didn’t get paid

Moore castigates the Whitehall staff who, as instructed by their government, worked from home during the pandemic. In doing so, he has wandered into one of the most awful aspects of what happened at the Ministry of Justice: cleaners were told to keep coming to work in buildings that weren’t being used. At least in Number 10 there was vomit and wine that needed wiping up. Down the road at the Ministry of Justice, no one was making any mess, but a cold bureaucratic inertia required people earning £9.08 an hour to carry on as if they were, at risk to their health and their lives. We keep being told that aides in Downing Street were working under “extraordinary pressures”. So, in a slightly different way, were the cleaners at the Ministry of Justice.

Moore takes the view that the Downing Street parties are a “Westminster political spat”. I disagree. I think it’s important that a prime minister should obey the laws he sets. I think it’s important his answers in parliament are trustworthy. And I also think that how someone behaves towards the undervalued people in their world tells you a lot about their character. On this, at least, Boris Johnson seems to agree. He has been at pains to apologise for the abuse of the cleaners and custodians in Number 10, although he seemed less keen to find out who was responsible for it.

If Emanuel Gomes had been an MP, or a special adviser, or a newspaper columnist, his death would have attracted more attention at the time. Instead he was just one of the people who clean up after the rest of us, unknown and unnoticed. The cleaners at the Ministry of Justice may not have been abused by the staff at Downing Street, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t abused.

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