Covid inquiry? Workers must decide
Put Tories and capitalism in the dock
Rob Williams, Socialist Party workplace and trade union organiser
Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson has presided over a coronavirus catastrophe that has left over 127,000 people dead - the highest number in Europe and one of the highest globally. Many people are now calling for an inquiry in order to bring him and his government to account.
The Socialist Party is in favour of an inquiry into this monumental injustice, but we believe that absolutely no trust can be placed in Johnson's Tory government and the capitalist establishment to lead it. We demand that any investigation into the disastrous response to Covid be conducted by the workers' and trade union movement.
Workers, particularly those on the front line, will have no confidence in the Tories or the judiciary to run an objective inquiry. Postal workers have the fresh memory of how, just months before the pandemic struck, an unelected High Court judge ruled out their strike ballot. They had voted 97% in favour of strike action, on a 76% turnout, smashing the draconian and undemocratic anti-union laws.
Rightly, most posties understood that this was not an impartial ruling. Made in the middle of a general election and at the busiest time for mail, it clearly benefited both Johnson and Royal Mail management. No establishment-led inquiry can be independent from the class forces - the minority that own and control the wealth in society - that it ultimately seeks to defend.
Any investigation would need to bring together the experience of workers and their families, free from the pressure and intimidation of the employers. The London bus drivers who have seen their mates die because of inadequate protection; the construction workers forced to stay on the sites; the nurses who had to fight for proper PPE, and the DVLA staff who voted to strike for safety after 500 of them contracted Covid. These are the people who have experienced first-hand the consequences of the disastrous mishandling of the pandemic.
A workers' Covid inquiry would not just put this Tory government and Johnson personally in the dock. It would need to bring out the role of Tory, Labour and ConDem governments over the last 40 years, faithfully acting in the service of big business to consciously and systematically erode and downgrade the NHS, public services, and health and safety laws and regulations.
The Covid pandemic has also laid bare the class character and inequalities of the capitalist system. It has clearly shown the need to bring an end to the chaos and anarchy of the profit system; the need to replace it with a socialist society, based on public ownership under democratic workers' control of the main economic levers and resources. This would enable the drawing up of a plan of economic production and international cooperation - the only way to safeguard workers' lives and guarantee their livelihoods.
And the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the force which can bring about such a fundamental change - the working class which keeps society going. But that requires building a mass party that can unite together workers and young people and oppressed groups which have particularily suffered during Covid.
Standing candidates in the elections on 6 May as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is a small but important step towards that goal.
NHS starved and weakened
London NHS worker
The NHS entered the pandemic in crisis: understaffed, underfunded, and weakened by decades of privatisation, marketisation and top-down reorganisations.
Before Covid hit, the NHS had an estimated 40,000 nursing vacancies, and a total of 100,000 unfilled posts. As the Socialist warned on 11 March 2020: "Britain has almost the fewest intensive care beds per person, and hospital beds overall per person, of any country in Europe."
The NHS had been starved of funding, given only a 0.4% increase compared to the increase in the cost of living since the ConDems came to power in 2010, compared to 5.9% in the decade before that.
Reorganisation schemes are a nightmare for staff and usually create more problems in patient care. The 'marketisation' in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act introduced needless and expensive new layers of bureaucracy. It forced different hospital trusts to compete against each other instead of co-operating, leading to delays in treatment.
The drive for 'centres of excellence' quickly became known as an excuse to try to cut vital services locally, such as A&E departments, or clinics like the Glenfield Heart Unit in Leicester, with the promise of better services. But many of these 'centres of excellence' are too far away for most people to reach.
For years Tory, Labour and ConDem governments have been privatising parts of the NHS. Privatisation drives down wages and conditions, and encourages companies to cut corners to maximise their profits.
Private company profits swallow up a greater and greater proportion of health spending, meaning there is less and less to spend on public healthcare. The long-term underfunding of the NHS will never be solved until it is renationalised, bringing all services back in-house on full NHS terms and conditions.
This underfunding has led to huge NHS debt, particularly in poorer areas, with bigger health problems. £13.4 billion of this was famously reclassified by the Tory government on 2 April 2020, reducing interest payments.
But the government didn't touch the NHS's biggest debts, of £55 billion for Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes. PFI was launched by New Labour under Blair as a way of building new hospitals to increase public support, with a trick to take the debt off the public balance sheet. Instead of using public money to build hospitals etc, they signed fat contracts with private developers to build them then rent them back to the NHS.
In some trusts up to a sixth of spending is just on PFI contracts. If all contracts are allowed to run their course, an initial £13 billion investment by private companies into PFI schemes will cost the NHS an estimated £80 billion, according to the IPPR.
For almost a decade, a pandemic had been considered the greatest threat to Britain. 'Exercise Cygnus', a three-day simulation of a deadly flu-like global pandemic in 2016, aimed at identifying weaknesses so that the UK could be better prepared for one, found that the healthcare system was likely to collapse under the strain.
The exercise found a lack of PPE, ventilators and critical care beds to be particular problems, and advised that these be addressed. The report was not acted on. This was the main cause of the desperate shortages of PPE at the beginning of the first wave.
Everyone working in the NHS, and those with loved ones in hospital, held their breath each time we heard a report of a hospital running out of oxygen, or coming close. Patients at the height of the recent wave were having to be sent hundreds of miles to the nearest available ICU bed, hoping that no one would die as a result.
All this was avoidable. We have to organise to fight to ensure that the privatisers and profiteers are kicked out of the NHS; that the NHS is fully publicly funded, free at the point of use, and democratically run by elected committees, including NHS staff and service users who know best what kind of service we need. That is the only way to make sure that thousands more lives are not needlessly lost as they have been in this pandemic.
Profits before safety
Steve Score, Leicester Socialist Party
From the beginning of the pandemic, and throughout it, the Tory government's main motivation has been to protect the profits and interests of big business. This has been at the expense of workers in many sectors, who have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, resulting in a far higher level of deaths than otherwise would have been the case.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) says over 10,000 workers have died so far from Covid infection in the workplace. Many more have suffered illness, including the effects of 'long Covid'. This figure excludes family members and others who were then infected in turn as a result of at least 3,500 separate reported workplace outbreaks. Yet the underfunded Health and Safety Executive has prosecuted no employers!
The World Health Organisation issued its highest possible alert, a 'public health emergency of international concern', on 30 January 2020, the day after the first confirmed cases in the UK. Yet it was not until 26 March that Johnson's first lockdown started.
The Chief Scientific Officer talked of 'herd immunity', suggesting that the virus be allowed to spread throughout the population. Johnson spoke on 3 February about his opposition to lockdowns, saying that they "go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage." Until he was belatedly forced to U-turn by the crisis in the hospitals.
Despite lockdowns, many workplaces have continued to function, not just 'key workers', along with a lack of safety on public transport and in schools.
Where there has been no trade union protection, the situation facing workers has been the direst - in the Leicester sweatshop garment industry, for example. For years, thousands of workers have been paid as low as £3.50 an hour - flouting minimum wage laws - let alone having decent health and safety protection. There was a big outbreak centred on these factories resulting in Leicester having the first localised lockdown.
Many workers have been forced to go to work, fearing loss of income - especially affecting those on zero-hour or insecure employment. Sometimes this has been despite Covid symptoms.
Where workers are organised, they have had to fight for safety. Building workers campaigned for safety when they were told to continue to work on non-essential luxury buildings. Bus workers, especially in London, fought for safety measures after many deaths - with Socialist Party members playing a key role.
It was education unions, after campaigning by Socialist Party members and others, that forced the government to U-turn on the immediate reopening of schools at the beginning of this year. Even today, PCS members at the DVLA are having to take strike action over Covid safety.
Now with the further loosening of lockdown measures there is a danger of more outbreaks. According to the TUC, half of employers are not carrying out risk assessments or have inadequate safety measures in place.
Lessons must be learnt quickly, and the trade union movement needs to do more than issue reports and press releases. We need coordinated union action to demand safety.
Capitalist inequalities laid bare
Jane Nellist, Coventry Socialist Party and NEU
The Covid pandemic has exposed more sharply the fault lines of inequality in our society. The impact on our most vulnerable and discriminated against communities has been laid bare for all to see, especially the grotesque poverty that many are living in.
All the data on health inequalities in the decade before the pandemic, with huge austerity cuts, saw the gulf between the poorest and the richest in our society getting wider. But Covid has exacerbated this.
A workers' inquiry must expose how capitalist politicians have been the cause of more deaths, more ill health and more misery for millions as a result of their policy decisions and the system they represent.
We have seen those who live in the poorest neighbourhoods more than twice as likely to be killed by the virus as those in the richest areas.
Without appropriate financial support to allow isolation, being forced to live in overcrowded, poor quality housing or compelled to work in unsafe workplaces, increased the chances of those in more deprived communities catching Covid. Even before Covid struck the mortality rate for the poorest groups in society was on the rise.
The high Covid death rate associated with race and ethnicity provoked anger which was articulated in the Black Lives Matter movements. We could all see the stories of families nightly on the TV. Prior to the pandemic, child poverty was already at a totally unacceptable level, with over 4.2 million children experiencing food poverty.
This has increased massively with the loss of jobs, and more families forced to survive on levels of Universal Credit that are pitiful, even with the £20 a week 'uplift'.
It is estimated that those households in the bottom 10% of household income would have to spend 74% of their income on food to provide a healthy diet. With housing costs and all the other pressures on spending, this gets squeezed.
So more and more families have come to rely on food banks or charity to feed their families. It took a footballer to fight the corner for free school meals in the holidays !
All of the occupations with above-average mortality rates from Covid are in lower-paid and lower-status jobs.
Even where homeworking was possible, it was women who bore the brunt of home schooling and childcare, increasing their burden of responsibilities and gender inequality.
The lack of support services and cuts to local authorities have meant that the impact of isolation and lockdowns on many people has had a serious impact on their mental health.
The 'catch up' on healthcare, such as cancer treatments, is another area that will hit communities unequally. We are yet to see the impact of this.
Class, gender, race and other inequalities are the inevitable consequences of a capitalist profit system in which a super-rich minority owns the means of producing wealth in society and exploits the working-class majority. The heart of the government's policies during the pandemic has never really been about protecting communities, but about protecting profits.
The truth must come out, and those responsible held to account by the working class.
Social care killing fields
Glynn Doherty, Trade union organiser
The pandemic has exposed the previously ignored plight of social care workers in Britain. Care home workers faced an influx of dying patients transferred from hospitals, bringing the virus with them, with inadequate or non-existent PPE.
The failings of government and employers in providing safety measures meant staff helped spread the virus exponentially. Social care workers faced among the highest mortality rates by occupation during the first phase of the pandemic and sickness absence rates more than doubled between February and October 2020.
Social care workers are paid a pittance. Almost 60% receive an annual pay increase - because their pay would otherwise fall below the minimum wage.
While the media focused on care homes, of particular concern were the 150,000 workers now employed directly by the people they care for. What a situation: the people who need the hands-on care in their own homes were legally responsible for providing PPE and safety for those providing the care!
While the safety, pay and working conditions are, of course, pressing issues which need addressing, not least by the sector's unions, it is the wider picture of social care that is being scrutinised by workers, service users and their families.
In 1979, two-thirds of care was NHS or council-run. Now 84% is for-profit. Around 18,500 organisations provide care in England alone. But even this mind-blowing number can't disguise that the largest care providers are owned by investment management companies and hedge funds, in effect, siphoning public funds into the coffers of the rich.
Any organisation which failed to provide adequate safety must be stripped of their contracts which should be handed back to local authorities. In the longer term, all care provision should be in public hands, co-ordinated and democratically run by workers, service users and their representatives.
Elaine Brunskill, South Tyne and Wear Socialist Party
Boris Johnson's working-class friendly, chummy facade slipped when he recently blurted out that, "greed and capitalism" delivered the UK's vaccination programme.
Realising he'd blundered, Johnson attempted to backtrack from the statement. In reality, the speedy roll-out of vaccines has been a testament to collaboration, aided by colossal sums of public money. But 'greed and capitalism' have been the cornerstone of the pandemic strategy. This has been graphically illustrated by the blatant cronyism of this Tory-led government.
As the pandemic took grip, shortages of vital PPE within the NHS and in care homes took hold. NHS and other frontline care workers were dangerously ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. There were shortages of medical masks, gloves, gowns and aprons. But while frontline workers were battling the virus, capitalists were salivating. Workers saw shortages, capitalists saw profit opportunities.
As the death rate in the UK grew to terrifying proportions, serious action was needed to contain the pandemic. However, Johnson, who purports to love the free market, under the guise of emergency regulations chose not to go to established suppliers. Instead, billions of pounds of pandemic-related contracts went to chums, family members, Tory donors, even a Tory councillor and Tory peer benefited. The scale of this strategy is mind-boggling, and reeks of cronyism.
Even an ex-pub landlord was given a £30 million government contract despite never having produced medical supplies before. All it took was a WhatsApp message to his former customer, health secretary Matt Hancock! Private companies were handed control of the calamitous test-and-trace system - no questions asked. Millions were squandered on useless 'consultants'.
This insidious web of contracts has rattled more astute representatives of capitalism. They understand a groundswell of resentment is growing against their system of profit, including angry NHS workers who the Tories attempted to blame for the lack of supplies, saying they were overusing PPE.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson has consistently rejected calls for an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, arguing that lessons will be learnt, 'in due course'. Any inquiry instigated by Johnson, or any capitalist representative, will undoubtedly suppress the disastrous role of the bosses' profit system in worsening the consequences of the pandemic. It's this that a workers' inquiry would expose and challenge.
In The Socialist 14 April 2021:
Lessons from history