The UK’s vaccination programme is in full swing. Millions have already received their first jab. At the time of writing, the national immunisation effort seems to be a rare success story – just about the only thing this rotten Tory government has managed not to screw up in relation to the pandemic.
But this glimmer of light offered by the vaccine will be little comfort to the families of the 100,000 people in Britain who have now died of the virus. This tragic figure was officially announced yesterday, following daily death counts of over 1,000 being repeatedly recorded in recent weeks.
In reality, the COVID death toll most likely exceeded this macabre milestone over a fortnight ago. However, the government’s own statistics lag behind, with the numbers fiddled in a futile attempt to hide the full grim picture from the public.
Indeed, if one looks at ‘excess mortality’, an indicator that provides a more accurate estimate of the real impact of the disease, then the 100,000 mark was reached earlier still.
Boris Johnson and his ministers have cried crocodile tears over this catastrophe. Mourning these deaths, and hypocritically paying tribute to health workers for their sacrifices, the Tories try to make us think that this was all inevitable; that nothing could have been done differently.
Yet nobody is fooled by this act. The fact that the UK now tops the table globally in terms of the COVID death rate is only the latest proof that this is no ‘natural disaster’. It is the Tories – and the profit system that they defend – that are to blame. They are responsible for what, in essence, constitutes the murder of tens-of-thousands of ordinary men and women in Britain.
Crimes and corruption
There is no need to recount the full litany of crimes and errors made by this government of crooks and charlatans. Most of these are already well known – and will not be easily forgotten.
We have repeatedly highlighted how Tory recklessness and incompetence has created this COVID chaos: from their consistent foot dragging over the implementation of restrictions and lockdowns; to their endless contradictory and confusing messaging; to outsourcing vital services to their profiteering chums; to their push for workers and students to return to offices, schools, and campuses in unsafe conditions.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The PM has promised to “learn the lessons and reflect”. Already, however, there are fears that there could be a repeat of the mass outbreaks in care homes seen during the first wave, as hospitals discharge elderly patients without a test. No doubt further scandals and corruption will be revealed when the dust has settled.
Bending the rules
Even now, with the NHS overwhelmed as a result of soaring infections, coming on top of years of cuts and privatisation, the Tories are playing fast and loose with the rules.
In Westminster, Conservative backbenchers, reflecting the pressure of business-owners, are clamouring to know when restrictions will be lifted. On the ground, meanwhile, the very same bosses are taking matters into their own hands.
In order to keep the profits flowing, many major retail chains have unilaterally reclassified themselves as ‘essential’ in order to stay open during this latest lockdown, or have operated unnecessary ‘click and collect’ services.
Smaller businesses, in turn, have been forced to follow suit, with little-to-no financial support on offer from the government.
In other words, we are in a lockdown in name only.
Pressure on workers
The result is an enormous pressure on employees to go into workplaces, putting their health at risk in the process, and providing a potent vector for contagion.
Unsurprisingly, this pressure is felt most acutely by those in precarious jobs, who often have no choice but to turn up to work, even when displaying symptoms or after receiving a positive test result.
As reported by the Observer recently: “One in 10 of those doing insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts and agency or gig economy jobs, said they had been to work within 10 days of a positive COVID test.”
Similarly, according to a survey by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, more than one in nine workers said they had been told to come into the workplace, even though they could have worked from home.
“Every day I get contacted by distraught people who are being forced into workplaces, which they feel are completely unsafe,” stated Professor Susan Michie, a scientist who sits on one of the SAGE subcommittees, speaking to the Guardian.
“They are having to choose between the risk of serious illness or death and losing their job – not to mention the risk of spreading the virus on the way to and from work.”
“Every single facet of what we’re doing could be done in the comfort of our own homes,” asserted Mike Richards, a shop assistant in Birmingham interviewed by the Guardian. “But we’re being forced to go in. This is a luxury fashion brand – how can it be essential? It’s an irresponsible act, for the sake of a little bit of profit for a multi-billion-pound company.”
This is the Sophie’s Choice that faces workers under capitalism, who must decide between protecting their lives or defending their livelihoods; in essence, between death by virus or death by hunger and homelessness.
Despite such blatant breaches of the rules by the bosses, not one has been punished. Instead, the Tories have the audacity to blame ordinary people for spreading the virus.
According to analysis by the Observer:
“No enforcement notices have been served on companies by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors for COVID safety breeches since the country went into the latest lockdown, despite being contacted 2,945 times about workplace safety issues between 6 and 14 January.”
“Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 COVID safety cases dealt with by the agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice,” the same newspaper continues, “with not a single company prosecuted for COVID-related breaches of safety laws.”
Responding to these shocking – but not surprising – figures, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady called for the HSE to be beefed up. But under capitalism, government ‘regulators’ and watchdogs such as these will never be anything more than paper tigers.
Instead of looking towards these toothless bodies and institutions for support, workers must rely on their own collective strength and organisation. The TUC and the trade unions under its umbrella should be launching a mass union recruitment drive, and pouring resources into training up new shop stewards, reps, and activists.
Teachers in the National Education Union (NEU) have shown the way forward. Tens of thousands of new members have joined the union since the start of the pandemic, drawn into the union thanks to its militant stance, and its willingness to stand up and defy the government.
21,000 new members to @NEUnion since 1/1/21— Daniel Kebede (@DanielKebedeNEU) January 10, 2021
Put workers in control
It is workers themselves who know best whether a workplace is safe; and what measures are required to protect their health whilst on the job.
To fight back against the cavalier and callous attitude of the bosses, therefore, the labour movement must demand the establishment of democratic workplace committees.
These should have the power to shut down non-essential businesses, where they pose a threat to workers and the wider public; and to implement any health and safety steps required to provide genuinely essential services.
In short, to implement a real lockdown and fight the virus effectively, we need to put workers in control.
Expropriate the billionaire class
At the same time, Labour and the trade unions must fight for proper economic support for all workers affected by the virus. This means demanding:
- Full pay for those on furlough, including those required to isolate, as well as for parents and carers who cannot work whilst schools are closed and children are at home.
- The requisition of hotel rooms to provide free temporary accommodation to the homeless and those who need to quarantine.
- An end to precarious work, zero-hours contracts, and bogus self-employment, with proper rights and sick pay guaranteed to all workers.
- And financial help for small businesses, including rent and tax holidays, in order to ensure that they remain shut throughout the lockdown.
The Tories claim that such measures are unaffordable. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have even vigorously defended their heartless plans to scrap the £20 per week increase in Universal Credit, which was brought in at the start of the pandemic to help those most in need.
But clearly the money is there to enact all these steps, and much more. One recent report from Oxfam, for example, found that the world’s 10 richest men have increased their fortunes by $540 billion during the pandemic. This would be enough to vaccinate the entire global population, the charity adds.
Furthermore, the same report estimates that the total wealth of the billionaires internationally is almost $12 trillion – coincidentally the same amount in state support spent by all the advanced capitalist countries in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The solution is clear. Workers, the poor, and the vulnerable must not be shouldered with the costs of the pandemic, through austerity or increases in public debts. Instead, the super-rich elite must be made to pay for this crisis.
Capitalism is killing us. The bosses and their profit system will always put their profits ahead of our lives. We need to expropriate the billionaire class, and plan the economy rationally and democratically, along socialist lines. Only in this way can we fight the virus and offer a bright future to humanity.