|Volume 50 Number 10, March 25, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
This week, as the number people contracting coronavirus continues to increase to over 8,000 cases in the UK and the deaths of those who had contracted the virus tops 400, people from health campaigns, trade unions as well as opposition MPs and others have been speaking out on the need to take up social responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, March 16, Sky News interviewed the Co-Chair of Keep Our NHS Public and veteran campaigner of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, Dr Tony O'Sullivan. Asked as to what is his assessment of where we are in terms of the NHS, their capability of dealing with this crisis if we manage to slow the growth and flatten the peak of this pandemic, he said: "I have nothing but total admiration for the public National Health Service. We are starting from a difficult position because the service has not been well supported by government policy over the last ten years. So, we are starting from the point where we have a quarter of the intensive care beds of Italy. We have 100,000 staff vacancies in the NHS and we have lost over 17,000 beds over the last ten years.
"So," he continued, "now it is all hands to the mill and we have to use every way slowing it down using the advice of the World Health Organisation and the experience of other countries. Using that with respect and humility in this country to best effect."
In that regard, he was then asked whether that implied he was not convinced by the strategy being presented to the government by scientific advisers and Public Health England. In reply, Dr O'Sullivan said: "I would absolutely not try to second-guess the top public health specialists in this country, but we need to take real appraisal of the situation that is going on now where, for example, GPs on the front line are self-isolating because they don't know whether they have got the virus or not. They are not able to get a test. Also, GPs, ambulance staff and hospital staff have not got the right equipment. We have had several weeks from the outbreak of this pandemic in Wuhan in China. Several weeks to get ourselves ready and the government policy at the moment seems to be allowing the spread and not locking down urgently. And although I can't second-guess the specialists, we have to urgently slow down the spread and use that time to get coronavirus testing all over the country, so that there is rapid identification of tests, both for patients, and also for front-line NHS staff, because if they have got a cold and they know it is not coronavirus, they can go straight back to work."
On Monday, the National Education Union (NEU) declared that, if the government would not shut down the schools by Monday, March 23, they would order a mass walk-out of all their members. By Wednesday last week, the government had had to capitulate over this demand and declared that all schools would close by Friday.
The TUC has also continued to call on the government to meet the key demand of the workers that the government provide wage subsidy schemes to support people, pointing out: "We know that government has the mechanisms in place to get money direct to workers. It's time to act now." They also called, among other important measures, for the government to fix the sick pay system to provide sick pay for all, saying: "Our sick pay system is broken. At a maximum of £94.25 per week, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not enough to live on. The average worker earns £512 per week, so for the estimated 7 million people who rely on SSP, any time off work will be a large income shock."
Among the trade union leaders responding to Chancellor Rishi Sunak's package of support for businesses announced last Tuesday, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: "It is abundantly clear that we need a package of measures equal to the public health and economic emergencies now upon us. Urgent and considerable action is needed by government to avert personal and industrial catastrophe." He said that "we remain extremely concerned that workers' and individuals' own capacity to act on the public health advice will remain seriously compromised because the direct economic support has not yet been provided by government. This must change and urgently." He also said that providing wage support, covering rents and opposing evictions must be a priority.
It was in the context of these just demands from the workers' movement that the Chancellor announced that the government would now pay 80% of wages of employees not working as a result of coronavirus outbreak, after holding negotiations with unions and business groups. He said the "Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme" would be made available for staff who are currently not working as a result of the economic turmoil caused by the outbreak, but remain on their employers' payroll. To help the thousands who have already lost their jobs since the outbreak began, Universal Credit and working tax credit payments will also increase by £1,000 a year for the next 12 months. However, the thousands of casual and self-employed workers in the gig economy are so far not covered by this scheme.
On March 18, during Prime Minister's questions, Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn questioned the government's commitments, saying: "Generations to come will look back on this moment and they will judge us - they will judge us on the actions we take now. Our response must be bold and it must be decisive. The market cannot deliver what is needed; only collective public action, led by Government, can protect our people and our society. That collective action must not allow the burden to fall most on those who lack the resources to cope, as happened after the financial crash. People across the country do understand the need for temporary restrictions on our way of life to protect us all, and we will work with the Government, but the Prime Minister must understand that that will require balancing action to protect the most insecure and vulnerable, in the interests of public health as well as of social justice. The health of us all depends on the health of the most vulnerable, so I ask the Prime Minister: will he step up now - not tomorrow - and give support to those vulnerable people who live on the margins of our society, who are vulnerable themselves and make us all vulnerable, and give them the support and the assurance that they are desperately searching for today?"
Also on March 18, a petition, "6 Demands from NHS staff to help tackle Coronavirus", launched with Change.org with the support of Health Campaigns Together and the Socialist Health Association, which has reached over 50,000 signatures. The demands cover: testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to be made available for all NHS and social care staff now; immediate support for those relying on carers if carers go sick; proper wages and paid sick leave for all carers; bringing private health resources into public service; making all information available for public scrutiny; and an immediate end to eligibility checks and charging including those related to residency status and national origin, allowing all patients to use the NHS without fear.
As tragic news of medical staff contracting the disease and requiring intensive care are named among the dead comes to light, the most urgent demand concerns the equipment, resources and the recognition of the conditions of health workers, including the need for more tests and for the essential protective equipment they need to protect them against the virus as they carry out their work in dealing with this pandemic.
The spread of coronavirus does not mean that the working peoples of the nations or regions of Britain or of any country cannot establish their own programmes to make sure the situation is brought under control. This further emphasises that the workers cannot merely demand that governments uphold their rights but must take action to make sure both their rights and the rights of all are defended. This is not a matter of whether or not authorities show good faith, but of going all out to activate working people to take practical stands to make sure the crisis is resolved in their favour.
1. "6 Demands from NHS staff to help tackle Coronavirus",