Anger is building at Boris Johnson and his Tory Westminster government over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of widespread testing, hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs, the fear over the NHS being able to cope due to cuts and a decade of austerity are all issues causing mounting concern.
So has the approach of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish government to the coronavirus crisis been any different?
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends the UK-level COBRA meetings – meetings convened by the Westminster government during periods of national ‘emergency’ – and, so far, has gone along with all the fundamental strategies and advice issued by the Johnson government and its chief medical officers.
The SNP government has not pursued an independent line on how to deal with the crisis. In fact, at every stage, it has been complicit in the decisions taken which have led to a worsening of the situation for working-class people.
The first Scottish Covid-19 case was confirmed on 1 March 1 and the first death on 13 March. Today the death toll has risen to 47 and more than 1,000 confirmed cases. Yet the real figure of infection in Scotland is estimated to be closer to 70,000.
There is no mass testing of frontline NHS workers, let alone testing of the general population.
It is critical the Scottish government break now from Westminster’s austerity-driven madness and ensures mass testing can now take place.
The Scottish Chief Medical Officer did spell out on 3 March that the epidemic had the potential to hospitalise 200,000 people. Yet before this crisis broke Scotland’s NHS had 275 Intensive Care Unit beds, 380 ventilators and was testing around 700 people a day.
Ten years of cuts – even longer of under-investment – and massive payments to PFI/PPP contractors has left the NHS vulnerable to the now annual winter admissions crisis never mind the current pandemic.
It is clearer by the day that the NHS in Scotland, already on its knees through underfunding and cuts and with a £1.7 billion shortfall nationally, is about to suffer an unprecedented pressure on its resources.
“Field hospitals” are being set up for the “tsunami”, in the words of the Scottish Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood. Staff shortages exacerbated by workers having to self-isolate and being off ill are causing huge difficulties for the NHS and social care services.
As elsewhere in the UK, NHS staff are speaking out at the lack of PPE equipment. The Glasgow Times newspaper exposed that out of date surgical masks had been distributed across NHS Glasgow and Clyde. SNP Health Minister Jeanne Freeman had to publicly apologise to Scottish Ambulance staff over the lack of PPE equipment on March 20th.
Only in the last week have the extortionate parking charges for staff in three key NHS hospitals, imposed as part of the PFI/PPP contracts, been cancelled.
Nicola Sturgeon, over the weekend of 21-22nd March, engaged in a moralistic tirade, in complete harmony with Tory Health Minister Matt Hancock, against people in Scotland who had socialised during the good weather and had travelled to rural beauty spots and parks.
Many were understandably confused by the contradictory and inconsistent health advice by the Tory and SNP governments, but also have no trust in these authorities to actually deal with the pandemic through testing.
This was seen on the Monday following the lockdown when Nicola Sturgeon condemned commuters, forced to come into work either by their bosses or because there is no other way of getting income, who packed onto the reduced Scotrail trains and the expensive privatised bus networks.
The SNP have not made much noise, however, about bus companies like Xplore in Dundee who are imposing a choice of either a 20% wage cut or 60% job losses on their drivers.
But why have the SNP not nationalised Scotrail and the buses so a safe transport plan could be implemented, controlled by the workforce rather than profiteering by the franchises?
Where is the support for low paid workers and the self-employed facing a drastic drop in income?
The Covid-19 outbreak has also shown the impact of a decade of council cuts. Tens of thousands of job losses have created a staffing crisis which is now much worse as more workers go off sick and are having to self-isolate.
SNP Glasgow council leader Susan Aitken has appealed to staff who carry out “non essential work” to volunteer to work in cleansing, crematoriums and elderly care.
This is the result of year-on-year cuts to councils. In Glasgow, it is amounting to several hundred million pounds.
Rather than standing up and fighting Tory austerity, SNP and Labour administrations across the county have wielded the axe to such an extent that councils are struggling to remain functional in this crisis.
Imagine instead if they had followed the fighting policy of the Glasgow council trade unions, of utilising financial mechanisms to set legal no-cuts budgets and mobilised a mass campaign to fight for more funding?
The Scottish government do claim they have been verbally lobbying the Tories for more assistance for zero-hour contracts and self-employed workers.
Sturgeon called on non-essential construction sites to close but many of these workers are under the bogus self-employed umbrella scheme and are not in the PAYE system.
But why not use the Scottish government’s devolved powers over welfare and taxation to increase support?
The budgetary underspends can be used, but also mechanisms like the Scottish Welfare Fund could be provided with emergency funding to mitigate and make direct payments to help those in the queue of hundreds of thousands for Universal Credit.
The Scottish government has now introduced a no eviction policy for six months. But rents should also be cancelled during the crisis, with a hardship fund for small landlords on the basis of proven need. Followed immediately by a rent cap policy to make housing affordable.
Scottish Income tax powers granted three years ago were not utilised to tax the wealthy to fund public services and welfare but could be used now to raise money to fight the crisis.
The Scottish government should also be using state intervention, as previously in the case of Prestwick Airport and Ferguson Shipyard, to nationalise engineering firms and other key industries that can be utilised to produce ventilators, PPE (personal protection equipment) and any other equipment needed by the NHS and key workers.
Every economic indicator shows that this pandemic is precipitating a deep recession which will further increase destitution in Scotland.
Neoliberal capitalism, through decades of deindustrialisation, has meant 19% of the Scottish economy is now based on retail and hospitality, the most vulnerable sectors to the covid-19 shutdown.
The wealth exists in society, but neither the Tories, Labour nor the pro-big business SNP is willing to demand it is taken off the 1%, even in a pandemic.
A recent report by the Fraser of Allander Institute showed only 42% of Scottish households in the bottom income decile would be able to cover one month of their regular income from savings. This is while £750 billion is hoarded in the bank accounts of big business across Britain.
During this crisis, the SNP leaders should be demanding a return of the billions stolen from Scotland in cuts by Westminster, which could be used to fund the NHS and local councils.
In addition, socialists would demand the nationalisation of the top companies and financial institutions to enact the socialist planning measures needed to suppress the virus, keep the population safe, and protect working class people’s living standards.
The SNP’s unwillingness to break from the capitalist market, the very sick social system which is being exposed hourly by the pandemic, means an even deeper process of disillusionment is underway among workers and youth.
A greater audience in Scotland is building for socialist ideas. Importantly, the role of “key workers” has shown the central role of the working class and the trade unions in production and running of society, generally.
Socialist Party Scotland is fighting for the creation of a new mass workers’ party, based on the trade unions, that fights for an independent socialist Scotland as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland.
If this current pandemic and its effects prove anything, it is that capitalism cannot alleviate human suffering. Socialist planning to care for the needs of the billions on a world scale is the only way forward.