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It’s only by standing with workers that we’ll beat coronavirus but the Tories always put private profit first – Nadia Jama, Labour NEC member

“One of the main reasons the current “lockdown” is failing is because people are being forced into work. We have to address the reasons for that.”

Nadia Jama, NEC member

This year started with confirmation that the UK had surpassed 80,000 covid-related deaths. Since then, 1000s more have died and new cases have continued to rise. The UK now has one of the greatest number of coronavirus deaths per million in the world.

The loss of life is tragic and shocking. All those politicians and journalists who argued for a “herd immunity” strategy – who said that we should just allow the virus to move though the population – should be ashamed; they’ve been completely discredited.    

These deaths could have been avoided if we’d undertaken a zero-covid approach from the onset of the pandemic. This is how New Zealand, Vietnam and China have all been able to beat the virus with little loss of life. It’s not too late to adapt that strategy now; Labour should argue for three key steps to achieve this:

  • A full UK-wide lockdown until infection chains are broken in local communities.
  • An effective find, test, trace, isolate and support (FTTIS) system, run locally in the public sector, to quickly squash any further outbreaks.
  • Covid screening, and where necessary quarantine, at all points of entry to the UK.

But in addition to these public health measures, we also need to tackle the economic drivers of the crisis. One of the main reasons the current “lockdown” is failing is because people are being forced into work. We have to address the reasons for that. 

First, people can’t stay at home without proper financial support. To make any further restrictions work, we must also guarantee the livelihoods of everyone who loses money because of the pandemic.

If we want people to self-isolate and recover at home, then we have to ensure they are not financially penalised for being ill during a pandemic. No one can survive for 2 weeks on £95.80 per week, with bills, rent and food to buy. Statutory Sick Pay should be increased in line with the real living wage.

We must also fight for the extension of furlough. It’s outrageous that people are being asked to survive on 80% of the minimum wage, so we should be pressing the government hard for at least a minimum wage floor on the scheme. 

We should also ensure that those who have been forced out of work have enough money to survive. That means completely opposing the proposed cut to Universal Credit.

Second, Labour must stand with workers struggling against bosses who exploit vaguely worded and badly communicated public health guidance. We’re seeing large corporations – such as some coffee houses – abuse the rules and wrongly label their employees essential or key workers. All non-essential businesses should be closed and their workers furloughed – leaving them open puts workers at risk and makes it harder to push down the rate of infection, leading to more avoidable deaths. To keep them safe, genuine key workers should be given the vaccine as a matter of priority.  

But it’s no good just standing with workers against bosses who abuse the rules. Our party must also stand with Trade Unions when Government guidance is plainly wrong and flies in the face of the scientific advice. As a member of Labour’s NEC, I was proud to sign a letter to Keir Starmer and Labour’s frontbench team urging them to join with education unions, parents, and public health experts who called for schools to close to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable young people. Now the Government has u-turned, we should insist that nurseries also close – there is no evidence to suggest that keeping them open is any less harmful than schools.     

It would be hard not to reflect on the comments made by Boris Johnson at the start of this pandemic and conclude that after the two failed lockdowns, the mixed messaging, the confused and piecemeal tiering system, and the complete failure of Serco track and trace, that “herd immunity” had been the de facto strategy all along. It’s an approach that’s completely failed.

Instead Labour needs a zero-covid plan that puts both the lives and livelihoods of workers at its core – defending our incomes and fighting alongside us not only when bosses abuse the rules, but when Ministers write rules that cannot responsibly be followed. It’s only by standing with workers that we’ll beat this virus. 

Nadia Jama is a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee

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