Britain’s accession to the European Social Charter in 1965 expressed a formal commitment by the British state to protecting the health of its own workers and citizens, especially through Articles 3 and 11. Acceding to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals produced a supplementary commitment as well to protection of other people around the world from health risks such as those posed by pandemics (SDG3b). How far these commitments were honoured during the COVID pandemic is assessed here. Even before COVID arrived, the Marmot reviews of 2010 and 2020 had pointed out how growing social inequalities were impacting on the health of the most vulnerable in British society, at great cost to the public purse. This development was exacerbated by changes in the labour market leading to the emergence of a growing number of precarious employees. These were particularly concentrated in those key worker sectors required to keep distribution going and the NHS functioning during the pandemic. Their differential vulnerability, exacerbated by pre-existing health inequalities, did not produce a commensurate policy response. Instead, temporary policy interventions such as the furlough scheme were largely targeted at the relatively well-off. Meanwhile, a public rhetoric that presented vulnerability to COVID as primarily due to underlying health conditions both obscured how widespread such conditions nonetheless were and distracted from the welfare failings that the pandemic exposed. Key workers’ differential death rate tells its own story about how far treatment of the workforce was from addressing safety requirements on some kind of utilitarian basis of both slowing the circulation of the virus and of relative need, let alone the social contract obligations expressed in Article 3 of the European Social Charter or the enlightened self-interest which informed the historic emergence of welfare states.