Leicester has become the first city in the UK to see the imposition of a localised lockdown. The easing of rules has been reversed following a local surge in cases. No doubt this will be the first of many such cases. The Tories are haphazardly easing lockdown restrictions nationwide, putting profits before the public health.
The reason for this sudden surge of cases in Leicester is down to several factors. Firstly, the unsafe working conditions in workplaces across the city, particularly within the garment industry. Secondly, the deprivation of parts of the city – particularly East Leicester where a majority of the cases have been found. And thirdly, the government’s failure to publish localised testing results, which has meant that the surge in Leicester was not immediately evident.
An investigation by the organisation “labour behind the label” – which campaigns for workers’ rights in the clothing industry – has helped to reveal the detrimental role of working conditions in causing this localised outbreak.
The campaign uncovered how unsafe work practices within the garment industry have resulted in widespread contagion amongst the workforce. The organisation received reports from many workers in Leicester, who revealed the shocking negligence with which they were treated by the employers.
Workers claimed they were being forced to work, whilst not being provided with adequate safety measures. This includes a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Scandalously, reports showed that some employers had disregarded cases where workers had tested positive for COVID-19. The bosses continued to force infected people into work by prohibiting sick pay and access to the government furlough scheme, leaving workers with no choice but to continue working.
Factories stayed open throughout the pandemic and workers report they were told to keep working despite testing positive for COVID-19. This article shares finding from our new report, with comment from Dominique, Policy Director for LBL. https://t.co/wx9zREiEOZ— Labour Behind The Label (@labourlabel) July 1, 2020
Managers and owners have been free to self-isolate, in order to protect themselves from the pandemic. Meanwhile workers were being told they had to turn up to work, in order to meet the enormous demand coming from online retailers, such as Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing.
Furthermore, whilst workers’ lives were being put on the line, some employers have reportedly been committing furlough fraud. Workers claim they were being told to hide payslips in order for the company to profit from government furlough schemes.
In some extreme cases, redundant workers who could not qualify for furlough payments discovered that their previous company still had them on the roster, claiming furlough money on their behalf for extra profits.
The eastern parts of Leicester are the most highly affected in the city itself, as found by a Public Health England investigation. These represent the most deprived parts of the city. Recent figures show that Leicester East constituency has a child poverty rate of over 40%, even before the outbreak of coronavirus.
Some neighbourhoods, like the area to the west of Spinney Hill Park, have a child poverty rate of over 50%. It is in the poorest areas – with cramped housing conditions and the most exploited sections of the workforce – that the virus is most easily spread.
These areas are also made up of predominantly BAME communities, who make up 60% of the population of Leicester East. BAME workers also make up a majority of the workforce in many of the garment’s factories. At this most vulnerable and uncertain time, these deprived communities have been cast aside and left to the mercy of the pandemic.
Regional inequalities will intensify as other local lockdowns occur, which will likely hit other deprived areas. And these communities will be faced not just with the threat of the pandemic, but also with the harsh economic impacts of further lockdowns.
The outbreak in Leicester has been further exacerbated by the complete failure over testing.
COVID-19 testing results in the UK are divided into four different ‘pillars’. Pillars one and two account for testing to find current cases of COVID-19. Pillar one data shows the test results from Public Health England (PHE) labs and NHS hospitals. And pillar two shows testing taking place outside of these labs, mainly by private companies on behalf of the NHS.
As the number of infected people goes down, a higher percentage of cases are identified at pillar two testing sites (which are for people with symptoms who call the NHS or register online), rather than people who go into hospital.
Crucially, the government does not break down pillar two data by local authorities. Local authorities are therefore lulled into believing the situation is safe, because of low pillar one numbers. In reality, however, pillar two numbers can be much higher – as was the case in Leicester.
From the Financial Times data team.— Marc Webber (@marcwebber) June 30, 2020
The data in blue are the coronavirus case numbers made public.
The red data is the number of cases the government knows about, but hasn’t made public.
That’s why Leicester is in lockdown. pic.twitter.com/CzSnJGyta1
Furthermore, the Tory government was extremely slow to act upon the developing situation in Leicester. Boris Johnson recently claimed at PMQs that:
“The government first took notice and acted on what was going on in Leicester on 8 June, because we could see that there was an issue there. We sent mobile testing units—four more mobile testing units—shortly thereafter.”
However, this is simply not true. A spokesperson from Leicester City Council confirmed that the first such testing site was not set up until 18 June, and that it wasn’t until 21 days after 8 June that all four had been set up. By the time the fourth had been set up, the city had already re-entered into lockdown.
The slow reaction of the government to contain the spread of the disease in Leicester will have doubtless cost many lives.
Let workers decide
The disdain that the ruling class holds for the working class is blatant. Boris Johnson claimed that the surge in Leicester was because of “problems getting people to understand” what to do. In other words, it is the workers fault for not understanding the government’s clear advice!
Johnson similarly attacked ordinary people for flocking to beaches, even after he had openly called for beaches to reopen. In Parliament recently, for example, the Prime Minister called on seaside councils to “show some guts” and “roll out the welcome mat”.
The outbreak in Leicester was not the fault of workers, who have been offered no choice and no support under the pressure of their bosses.
It was the fault of the profit-hungry businesses who demanded workers continue to work, even when displaying symptoms, and even when they tested positive for COVID-19.
And it was the fault of the inept Tory government, which has at all stages been slow to act, putting the interests of the capitalists over the lives of workers.
The pursuit of public health and safety must always come before profits. The workers, not the interests of capital, must be in charge of deciding when – and how – it is safe to return to work.