By Mark Buckley
The Tory government has begun to end the partial lockdown even while the coronavirus pandemic rages. By forcing millions of people to go back to work at a time when the virus is not under control, Johnson’s government has made a decision that will literally kill tens of thousands of people unless it is overturned. It is a callous and grotesque policy which clearly puts restoring profits before saving people’s lives. If this policy is not resisted a renewed spike in cases is very likely, even from the current elevated levels.
There is no basis for any easing of the lockdown in Britain. In recent days, South Korea has had to reverse a partial easing of its lockdown as cases rose once more. Germany is under pressure to do the same. Both countries had previously seen a significant decline in recorded cases, albeit with very different mortality rates. Based on data from the Financial Times, South Korea’s most recent rolling average of daily new cases rose to 11.6, while Germany’s was 960. By contrast, the daily UK total was 4,714. Crucially, there is also no sign of any downward trend in UK cases, having been at the same level in mid-April.
The UK’s partial lockdown has had some effect. However, these half measures have been inadequate, resulting in an unnecessary huge loss of lives. What is needed is at a minimum maintenance of the lockdown, and preferably a tightening, not its relaxation.
Prior to the partial lockdown announced on 23 March, on the government’s incomplete reported data, new coronavirus cases and deaths were both more than doubling every four days. Since then the number of new reported cases peaked at 6,201 on 1 May and deaths peaked at 1,172 on 21 April. The partial lockdown has stopped the government’s reported daily numbers of new cases and deaths rising, but the daily new cases and deaths remain very high – per head of population amongst the very highest in the world. In the seven days to 10 May there were 67 deaths per hundred thousand people in the UK compared to 40 in Italy, 13 in Germany, and 0 in South Korea and China. The lifting of even the partial lockdown cannot stop this catastrophe. That is why a rigorous lockdown is still needed.
The Tory government is however proceeding in the opposite direction. Whilst thousands of people are still becoming infected and hundreds dying every day – all unnecessarily – it is relaxing the partial lockdown. Even on the government’s reported current average daily number of new cases, at more than 4,000, it is not remotely possible to track, trace and test all those that have been in contact with the newly identified cases – let alone isolate and treat those that have become infected. The relaxation of the lockdown can only increase the already high levels of infections and deaths.
The governments in Wales and Scotland, who have not always been resolute in opposing the Tories even in the recent past, have so far resisted pressure from Downing Street to go along with a policy that shows complete disdain for the lives of ordinary people. Meanwhile, the slaughter in the care homes continues without any effort to check it.
The UK already has the second-worst number of deaths of any country in the world. Not only is the lockdown being eased while new cases and deaths remain at extraordinarily high levels, but there is clearly no system in place to track, trace and test the contacts of the current cases. The government stunt of meeting its 100,000 testing target once at the end of April has never been repeated since. Even this target level is wholly inadequate to support half a million frontline health workers effectively, with nothing for care workers and other essential workers. Even the government makes no claim that there will be effective tracking and tracing for the new victims’ contacts after lockdown. The NEU have pointed out that there is absolutely no plan for testing or social distancing within schools, which the government is planning to start reopening in a matter of weeks.
The Government’s focus is profits
It is clear that the government’s ‘encouragement’ to return to work is wholly unjustified. Boris Johnson stipulated that the government is aiming for a return by all those who cannot work at home. This means the government is aiming for close to a full return to work during a deadly pandemic.
In case people did not get the point, Johnson singled out the manufacturing and construction industries where people should return. This is despite the impossibility of social distancing at work in many cases, and the risks of travel on public transport, both for passengers and transport workers. Manufacturing and construction are among the most profitable sectors of the economy.
The government had long threatened to make 18 May the date for a full return to work, with the train operating companies ordered to return to almost full service by then. That date had been set weeks ago, irrespective of the casualty rate or ‘the science’.
Others have pointed out that Taylor Wimpey previously told the Stock Exchange it would begin a phased return to work on 4 May, and that the first subcontractors would begin returning to work on 11 May.
Taylor Wimpey and its directors are large donors to the Tory Party. The government also plans to economically conscript workers back to the workplace. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has already announced plans to end the income support for furloughed workers. One option under discussion is to cut payments of 80% of wages to 60%, and to lower the £2,500 upper limit on monthly payments.
The lockdown has been supported by the overwhelming majority of the population. One poll, published on the same day as Johnson’s announcement, showed just 4% supporting an immediate end to the lockdown, with 90% opposed to any easing.
But public opinion alone cannot alter the policy of a government hell-bent on protecting profits at the expense of lives. However, action by organised workers can. The leaders of UNITE, GMB, Unison and USDAW unions, as well as the TUC, wrote to Johnson saying they would not support an unsafe return to work. Johnson has ignored them.
But individual unions have made it clear that they oppose their members being forced to return to work. The main teachers’ union – the National Education Union – have made it clear they will support members refusing to return to an unsafe workplace, as the tweet below shows.
Teachers’ opposition is key. It’s crucial not just for their own safety and for the safety of other school workers, pupils and their carers, but also because it can undermine the government’s capacity to issue a general and immediate back-to-work order for all workers. The government needs schools reopened so that the parents and carers of children can be back at work instead of looking after their dependents. The traditionally less militant NASUWT seems to be in agreement.
Transport too is decisive for the economy and for the Tories’ deadly plans to force a return to work. That is why the government has been developing a plan for trains to return to almost full service on 18 May for several weeks. The resistance of the rail unions is therefore pivotal. These unions have highlighted the risks to workers and passengers alike from ending the lockdown, and say they will support workers who refuse to work under dangerous conditions. Below is a tweet from ASLEF.
And the RMT has issued fresh guidance offering support to members who refuse to compromise on health and safety.
With the opposition to government plans from the TSSA, that makes it unanimous from the transport unions.
The opposition of trade unions will have to become even more militant and co-ordinated in order to stop the second spike in deaths that is inevitable if government policy is implemented. This is an encouraging beginning.
It is much better than that of the new Labour leadership. The main demand from Keir Starmer has been that Boris Johnson publish an exit plan. Well, now he has. It is a 50-page exercise in deliberate confusion and falsehood. Its sole purpose is an attempt to distance government from the mass deaths that will follow. Complaints about the timing, incoherence or lack of consultation on the documentation are pointless distractions about process. If Starmer agrees with the content, then he will be equally culpable with Johnson. If he disagrees, he should say so clearly, along with Labour’s alternative.
There is little ground for optimism that Starmer will choose the second option, despite coming under pressure from many unions. But there is a growing body of Labour MPs, both the stalwarts of the left as well as some of the new MPs, who are completely opposed to Johnson’s herd immunity massacre. Growing resistance from the Labour movement offers the possibility of forceful opposition to the current government’s plans.