“The common thread of these failings is the Tories’ decision to pursue the interests of big business rather than the interests of public health.”
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
Last week, the UK passed another grim milestone: 100,000 deaths. A year on from the arrival of the first COVID-19 cases in the UK, we now have the highest death toll in all of Europe and one of the worst death rates in the world.
The Government’s incompetence in the early days of the pandemic has been well-documented with Boris Johnson missing in action from important Cobra meetings as the virus ravaged other countries. Going against the grain of WHO advice and a majority of the scientific community, our Government flirted with herd immunity, initially rejecting the idea of suppressing the virus altogether and stepping down contact tracing on the 12th of March.
By the time they realised the damage this would do, it was already too late. On the 16th of March, modelling made it clear this approach could mean more than 260,000 deaths. Even then, it took four more days for them to order businesses to shut and a staggering ten days to actually initiate a lockdown. That second delay cost us 20,000 lives alone.
The pandemic has been compounded by neglected public services that have seen a decade of decline. When the key to all crisis management is proper preparation, it’s clear that a decade of austerity and cuts left public services and households ill-placed to cope with the shock of the pandemic. Coming out of this, we must remember that we neglect the public sector at our peril.
The Tories had cut the NHS back to the point where it could barely cope with seasonal flu. Capacity in the NHS was running closer to the limit than in any comparable European country with the Tories having axed 15,000 beds in the past decade and a staffing shortage of 40,000 nurses and some 5,000 doctors. When COVID-19 arrived in the UK, we didn’t have gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in our PPE stockpile. Even now, many NHS staff still do not have the high-grade PPE they need and the UK’s health worker death toll continues to rise.
The Tories’ decisions at every stage of this pandemic have reinforced the same cruel logic of the last decade. Outsourcing Test and Trace and other important PPE contracts was disastrous, placing vital health services at the mercy of private companies’ profit margins with devastating consequences: people circulating with the virus, medical staff using binbags, more infections and more deaths.
While the private sector got gold-plated Coronavirus contracts, individuals have been left with crumbs. When Tory sources briefed that they were planning on cutting furlough because they didn’t want workers becoming “addicted” to state support, they were showing their true colours. Their last-minute reversals on ending furlough led to more unnecessary job losses.
Beyond the furlough scheme, we’ve seen a total failure to engage with the problems faced by renters, low-paid workers and a large group of three million workers excluded from financial support. The UK now has the lowest level of sick pay and unemployment benefit in any OECD country.
Of course, if you ask the Government, our high death rate is all the public’s fault – blame is just another thing to be outsourced for them. But if you look closely at compliance in the UK, it’s very clear that people are following the rules in all but one area: self-isolation. Less than 1 in 8 people who’ve applied have qualified for the self-isolation payment the Government set up.
One factor behind the high incidence of workplace outbreaks is the fact that after a decade of austerity, rising debt and wage stagnation, too many people simply cannot afford to stay at home. Another is the sheer lack of workplace safety enforcement in the UK. The Health & Safety Executive has investigated 97,000 Covid breaches during the pandemic. Less than 0.1% of these have resulted in action and not a single company has been prosecuted.
The common thread of all these failings is the Conservative Party’s decision to pursue the interests of big business rather than the interests of public health. In the event, we’re now seeing the worst recession of any large economy as well as some of the worst health outcomes. That’s because you can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people. The repeated gamble of trading off public health for the benefit of private profit might deliver for the very lucky few but it is never going to deliver a better economy for the many.
In the end, one of the most important lessons of this pandemic is the power that we possess when we act together. There are glimmers of hope in frontline workers proving their work is more valuable to society than any corporate executive’s, education staff organising to protect communities by closing schools and the uptick in union membership. With the Tories unwilling to learn anything from the systemic failings that have plagued our approach to the coronavirus crisis, we have to start shouting about these things from the rooftops.
- Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP is the latest Socialist Campaign Group Labour MP to join Labour Outlook’s monthly columnists, alongside Apsana Begum, Richard Burgon, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Kate Osborne, Jon Trickett and Claudia Webbe.