“What we’re seeing is the inability of the existing system to suppress the virus. Lives are being sacrificed to protect the status quo. The labour movement should unite to point to the way the pandemic has made the case for far reaching change.”
This is based on the speech given by Ben Chacko at the recent Fighting Back in 2021 event – you can watch it in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kj9k_ypCuTY&t=4982s
If we think back to March when the Tories imposed the first lockdown there was a period when Boris Johnson had the highest approval ratings of any prime minister on record.
These were not of course deserved – the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, leading to Britain’s almost uniquely awful experience of Covid-19, began before most of us knew this was a crisis. The lockdown was imposed late, warnings from the World Health Organisation, China and even the unfolding catastrophe in nearby Italy were ignored. Johnson famously skipped successive emergency Cobra briefings on the threat.
But this pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes and ministers benefited from the fact that the public didn’t have much of a yardstick to measure their performance by. The impression was that government was taking drastic action in a crisis. Soon Rishi Sunak was announcing state support for jobs through furlough and the self-employed support scheme.
The gaps in these schemes would become evident in time – but the headline figures were huge and we got the impression of an administration that was rising boldly to the challenge of the crisis. Optimists even pointed to the apparent rejection of austerity and talk of state investment in public services and regions, and argued that the big spending announcements showed that the Tories had changed.
Ten months on, we know that is emphatically not the case. Three things are clear from the course of the pandemic in Britain.
One, the Tory response throughout has been of half-measures – as the Independent Sage committee of experts pointed out last summer, one based on managing the virus at relatively high but non-catastrophic levels rather than suppressing it.
This is why lockdowns have been late, and partial: gaping holes are left in them, whether the failure to close schools in the second lockdown in November, or the current failure to end non-essential work or police workplaces to establish whether they are really as “Covid secure” as managers claim.
Lockdowns have also been lifted when infection numbers appear to be declining rather than when they have been driven down to really low levels, and they have not been used to build effective instruments for identifying and suppressing subsequent outbreaks such as a functioning test, trace, isolate and support model. The result is a seemingly endless cycle of infection, with periodic catastrophic peaks. This month’s figures are the worst yet, and have established Britain as the country with the highest death rate anywhere in the world. Yet the Tories are still talking about early lifting of restrictions as the crisis rages around them.
The Labour front bench has attacked the “dither and delay” that characterise the Tory approach to the pandemic, which often seems more about managing the headlines than managing the virus. But it has lacked consistency and a comprehensive approach when it comes to measures needed to actually suppress infections – refusing for example to listen to teachers or recognise the soaring infection rates among school pupils last autumn because of a determination to look tough on unions.
Two, the Tory response has been one of cronyism – “chumocracy” was the phrase the Times used, I think the British Medical Association journal’s term “rampant corruption” is more apt.
The emergency has been abused to award huge contracts and lucrative jobs to Tory donors, Tory MPs’ wives and personal friends, most notoriously Dido Harding, a failed TalkTalk exec handed control of the disastrous test-and-trace programme and now head of the national institute for health protection, the replacement for the Public Health Agency. The decision to award roles and contracts essential to tackling the virus to their unqualified mates means the government response is not expert-led while we have wasted huge sums of public money on unusable or inappropriate equipment. Tory sleaze has cost thousands of lives.
Beyond the venality of the approach there is an ideological agenda. The crisis has been used to award more health contracts to private providers without scrutiny than ever before. The creeping privatisation of the NHS has been accelerated.
That brings us to three, which is that the Tories are pursuing the exact policies that, longer term, have meant Britain has had one of the worst experiences of the pandemic globally. The part-privatised and part-outsourced NHS led to what We Own It exposed last year as a chaotic procurement process hampering hospitals’ ability to get what they need when they need it.
Trade union GMB has warned that outsourcing services such as hospital cleaning contracts means super-exploited workers on zero-hours contracts – workers who, because they lack proper sick pay, don’t dare take time off if they feel ill – preventing effective containment of new infections. This of course is a problem in many workplaces, not just hospitals, and points to the huge damage done by Tory attacks on labour rights. Millions live in a hand to mouth gig economy without proper contracts or job security. They fall through gaps in government financial support and cannot afford to isolate. And they have been the first victims of what promises to be a tsunami of job losses across the country.
There are too many individual cuts to list, but the cuts to the health and safety executive also deserve a mention here. The HSE doesn’t have the resources to check claims that workplaces are safe. Workplaces remain a major driver of new infections. Overall, we can say that austerity and privatisation, cuts and outsourcing, have fundamentally weakened the state’s ability to suppress this virus.
And the Tories’ commitment to that agenda, to restoring the pre-pandemic status quo, has also crippled the response. It explains why innovative but radical proposals such as the National Education Union’s on requisitioning extra spaces for schools to allow socially distanced learning were ignored – though if they had been taken up when the union raised them in the summer, we might have avoided a huge second wave.
It means that the government won’t intervene to take stricken industries into public hands, even where, as in the aviation sector, there are longer term reasons to do so such as reshaping it to meet our climate change commitments.
What we’re seeing is the inability of the existing system to suppress the virus. Lives are being sacrificed to protect the status quo. The labour movement should unite to point to the way the pandemic has made the case for far reaching change. There must be no going back to normal.