This week will mark seven weeks since Britain entered lockdown. It appears that the death rate from Covid-19 is finally starting to fall. Nonetheless, the official number of deaths is now higher than every European country, including Italy.
The low levels of testing, not least in care homes, means that the real death rate is certainly considerably higher. On 21 April, the Financial Times calculated a real toll of 41,000 deaths.
A comparison of official figures for the number of deaths above the average across 24 European countries shows that England had had the largest spike. Unsurprisingly, deaths are highest in the poorest areas of Britain (see page 4).
Meanwhile, there has been a 121% increase in families with children using food banks as poverty soars. Around two million people have had to apply for Universal Credit after losing work. Millions more have suffered pay cuts, often as part of being furloughed. Economic hardship and uncertainty are combined with the problems of isolation and being unable to visit loved ones.
For the whole of society, therefore, there is a tension between reasons to continue, and reasons to end, the lockdown. At this stage, however, opinion polls show that a big majority do not want to see the lockdown lifted. Just 17% are reported to think the conditions have been met to consider opening schools and only 9% pubs.
All reports, however, indicate that the government is now looking to put proposals to start lifting the lockdown. To prepare for this, the last of its five tests for doing so have been softened.
Previously, this was to “avoid risking a second peak of infection”. Now it has been changed to avoiding a second peak that “overwhelms the NHS”. This undoubtedly reflects the growing pressure from big sections of business to, as Johnson put it, “fire up the engines” of the economy.
A major obstacle to lifting the lockdown is the doubts the majority of the population have about it. At root, these reflect a completely justified lack of trust in Johnson and the Tories to take decisions based on the health and wellbeing of the working class.
The uncertainty and divisions within the Tories on the way forward are real. However, they do not represent tensions between those who want to put the needs of big business first and those who want to prioritise the public health, but instead over how best to do the former.
The lockdown itself was never a means to prevent a certain level of Covid-19 deaths, but to try to stop the prospect of the worst predictions of the death toll, and ‘flatten the curve’ in order to allow the NHS to cope. Those who want to extend the lockdown are concerned about the political and economic consequences of a second wave of the virus leading to a further lockdown.
The Tories’ real approach to public health has been shown both by the relentless cuts to the NHS resulting in woefully inadequate resources to cope with a pandemic and by their initial response to Covid-19.
Dominic Cummings summed it up in his reported comment, “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” Only the fear of a mass movement booting them out of office forced them to retreat from their original position of total inaction.
Now, in moving to ease the lockdown, they are once again prioritising ‘the economy’ – the capitalists’ profits – rather than public health. It is vital that the trade union movement launches a serious struggle to defend workers’ rights in this latest stage of the corona crisis.
The government’s briefings on the return to work are highly ambiguous. In all seven documents the section on PPE is blank – just saying “guidance to follow”! The lack of guidance undoubtedly reflects the lack of sufficient supplies of PPE.
On social distancing, the guidance says that: “It will not always be possible to keep a distance of two metres. In these circumstances both employers and employees must do everything they reasonably can to reduce risk”.
What suits bosses
The phrase “reasonably can” leaves enormous space for employers to do what suits their pockets rather than their workers’ health. London Underground Limited, for example, has argued that social distancing must be reduced to half a metre.
This guidance is so clearly a charter for risking workers’ health that even the leadership of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has had to say that while they “want to be able to recommend the government’s approach to safe working”, “as it stands” they “cannot”.
Throughout this crisis the majority of the trade union leaders, along with Labour leader Keir Starmer, have fallen into the government’s ‘we’re all in this together’ trap, setting aside their criticisms of the Tories until after the Covid crisis. Even on 29 April, with anger at the Tories mounting, Starmer was still describing the government’s handling of the corona crisis as “an amazing piece of work”.
The Tories’ plans for lifting lockdown, however, make it absolutely clear, as the Socialist Party has consistently argued, that we are not ‘all in this together’. The workers’ movement needs to organise to defend the independent interests of the working class against the relentless attempts of the capitalist class, aided by the Tory government, to make us pay the price for this crisis.
Many bosses are cynically using the crisis as a cover to implement long-cherished plans to attack workers’ rights. British Airways is threatening to sack the whole workforce and then invite them to reapply on worse terms and conditions (see page 7). Similarly, Royal Mail management has attempted to force through its restructuring plans under the cover of Covid-19, but has been forced to step back in the face of the Communication Workers Union response (see page 6).
Workers shoulder burden
Yet Labour’s Ed Miliband, now shadow business secretary, is still repeating the ‘national unity’ mantra, arguing that “together state, business and workers must share the risks and burdens we face.” Left to the government and business, it will be workers who shoulder all the risks and burdens.
Not only regarding the health crisis, but also the unprecedented economic slowdown it is triggering. Capitalism is a crisis-ridden system, and after a decade of economic stagnation and austerity for the majority, a new phase of crisis was already heading down the tracks even before the pandemic.
But that has been enormously exacerbated by the Covid-19 shutdown of the economy – with the government’s Office for Budget Responsibility predicting a giant 35% contraction in the second quarter of the year and a big spike in unemployment.
Panic-stricken about the scale of the economic crisis, and desperate to prop up the capitalist system, the government has ripped up the neoliberal rule book. It has intervened into the economy on a huge scale, pledging over £400 billion to prop up business during the lockdown.
In the aftermath of the immediate crisis, with dramatically increased public and company debts, the Tories will be looking for a way to make the working class pay the price.
However, given the likely scale of the economic crisis they may have no choice but to continue to prop up capitalism with increased state intervention. In that sense, they will not necessarily be able to return in the short term to the savage cuts in public spending – summed up as ‘austerity’ – of the last decade. Nonetheless, Tory policy will not be for the good of society, but for the good of the capitalist elite. The result will be a different form of austerity for the working class.
During this crisis the railways have been effectively nationalised in order to prop up the rail companies that were shrieking that they faced collapse. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical and private health industries, which are profitable, are left in private hands, rather than being nationalised to harness them for fighting the virus.
On the contrary, NHS privatisation is being extended under the cover of the crisis, with new services created to fight the virus – such as track-and-trace call centres – outsourced to private companies whose primary aim will be to make a profit.
The Covid-19 crisis is turning the world upside down, with profound political, social and economic consequences. The capitalist class will attempt to take advantage of the crisis in every way it can, above all by trying to restore its profits by attacking the wages and conditions of the working-class majority, not least by trying to force them to work in unsafe conditions.
Workers are looking to the trade union movement to defend them in this situation, hence the surge in union membership. A workers’ movement ‘council of war’ is urgently needed to organise a struggle to fight back against the bosses’ offensive. If the TUC refuses to act, the left trade union leaders should take the initiative.
Their demands have to include PPE and testing for all, no return to work unless safety measures can be guaranteed with full pay for all, and workers’ and trade union control of workplace safety. It should also call for nationalisation under workers’ control and management, with no compensation to the fat cats, for all companies in the health and social care sector, and all those – like British Airways – using this crisis to kick their workers in the teeth.
Councils of war need to be organised at local and workplace level as well as nationally. Some trade unions have shut down democratic structures during the Covid-19
Yet where local trade union bodies are meeting, they have been able to hold meetings, often virtually, with unprecedentedly large turnouts. All democratic structures have to be immediately reinstated to allow workers to organise in defence of their interests.
At the same time, a discussion needs to urgently begin throughout the labour movement on how to make sure the working class has a political voice. As the Covid-19 crisis has shown, Johnson and the Tories defend the capitalist system, not the working-class majority.
Starmer backs government
Unfortunately, the same can also be said of Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader. His few criticisms of the government have mostly been welcomed by big business, as they have focussed on pushing the Tories to reopen the economy. Asked if he would support workers who refused to work when it was unsafe to do so, as they are legally entitled to, he refused to even say he would back them.
What is needed is a mass party that stands intransigently in defence of the working class, arguing for socialist policies rather than the Labour front bench’s calls for unity between big business and workers. Achieving this will, in the view of the Socialist Party, require building a new mass party of the working class.