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Workers' Weekly Internet Edition: Article Index : ShareThis
For Your Information:
The Children's Commissioner for England
Protect Our Health and Care Workers
A Need to Change the Direction of the Economy:
Organisation of the Economy
Stop the War's First Ever Online Steering Committee Meeting
As the lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic enters its tenth week, the R-number, which refers to the reproduction ratio, hovers between 0.7 and 1.0, differing only in terms of degree across the country. If it were to return to above 1, then the rate of increase of Covid-19 once more would be exponential where thousands more may die as a consequence.
From the start of the lockdown, following Parliament's passing of coronavirus legislation and the Prime Minister's announcement on March 23, teachers and lecturers throughout Britain have thrown themselves into the work needed to prepare for the new conditions. Online lessons and new schemes of work were prepared, and education workers worked throughout that week and then throughout the subsequent Easter holidays to put in place everything required to teach and continue to educate pupils and students within the new conditions.
Indeed, workers in all their collectives have embraced the new forms of communication such as Zoom, Teams, Skype and WhatsApp groups. For many people, it has not been easy. However, these new technological forms have given rise to and have enabled what amounts to a new and modern means of communication. It has enabled teaching of children in a way not previously conceived. However, it has also given rise to and facilitated widespread discussion within work places, in regions and as part of mass union discussions across the country. Whereas previously hundreds might have gone to a meeting, now thousands can participate at any one time.
One such example of this was on Monday, May 18, when the National Education Union (NEU) held an online Zoom meeting which included 16,000 of its members. This has never before been possible. There was a sense of excitement at being part of the decision-making, asking questions directly of the Joint General Secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, and engaging in direct discussion about the most recent developments and concerns facing schools and the teaching profession right now.
All of this discussion stands in stark contrast to assertions of the various political leaders and parties who not long before had criticised the apathy of the British voting public on the basis that they were not interested in politics. This present crisis has, however, given the lie to this assertion of the government and others, and served to emphasise that the problem has been one of the exclusion of working people from decision-making, who with the outrage at the government have galvanised themselves into action. Workers everywhere have been actively participating in discussions on how to be effective and make their voices decisive. They have been drawing their own conclusions about what measures need to be put in place in order to safeguard the well-being of the whole society and end its dysfunctionality through the domination of private interests.
Amidst all of this very extensive and broad debate and discussion, Boris Johnson made an unexpected announcement on Sunday, May 10, that schools in England would return to in-school teaching from June 1. This came as a shock to the education unions and to schools throughout the land as neither the government nor the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had consulted with the NEU or any of the teaching unions before determining this date.
By Wednesday, May 13, nine unions, including the NEU, AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NSEAD, Prospect, UNISON and Unite, put out a joint statement. They called on the government to step back for the June 1 reopening date. They said that they, of course, wanted schools to reopen but only when it is safe to do so. They stated that the government was showing a lack of understanding of the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus within schools, and outwards to parents, siblings and relatives, as well as out into the wider community. They expressed the extreme concern of all their members that school staff would not be protected by social distancing, and that classrooms, especially of very young children, could be sources of Covid-19 transmission. Fundamentally, the statement said that not enough was known at this stage to set any early return date of schools; and it reiterated the principles and tests that, in the view of all nine unions, should be in place before schools return. The paramount concern is to maintain the safety and welfare of all pupils and staff. In order to do this, the unions have called for the rolling out of national Test, Track and Trace procedures in all schools, nurseries and colleges; as well as the provision of additional resources and PPE for all schools.
Finally, the statement called on the government to form a Covid-19 Education Taskforce to involve schools, unions and the government, which would be set up expressly to discuss and organise all that needs doing in the current conditions to safeguard the well-being of all and to ensure the continued education of the nation's children.
On Friday, May 15, the British Medical Association (BMA) threw its weight behind the nine unions, and fully supported their statement.
To widespread consternation, despite the statement and repeated attempts by the NEU to discuss their concerns with Gavin Williamson and the government, and despite a growing body of evidence supporting the concerns of schools and teaching and support staff, the government seemed determined to plough ahead with the June 1 reopening date.
And why? Why would the government not listen to the people who are delivering the education and doing the work at the "coal-face"; those who are experienced and knowledgeable in all aspects of delivering the various education programmes at all levels. But especially now. Within these conditions where education workers have given up their own holiday time and all their free time outside of delivery of the ongoing online teaching, to discuss and articulate from their own and direct experience what they believe necessary and required. They are the ones who know what is going on in their schools and what is needed in order to ensure an education which meets the children's needs and is geared to taking responsibility for the future of society. This is why the unions' statement concluded that the government's reopening of schools on June 1 is "rushed and reckless". It is not only ill-considered, but it abjectly fails to consider the wishes, experience and collective knowledge of the vast education workforce throughout Britain.
The NEU leaders have both condemned the government's proposal to reopen schools by June 1. In their opening statements in the online meeting on Monday, May 18, both Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney declared that the government was, in the view of the union and its members, simply wrong. They said that the date of June 1 has been chosen arbitrarily and that there was no evidence to support this decision. They said that the NEU has written to the government on three separate occasions and that so far they have not produced any of the so-called evidence. They said that the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has written to Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney talking about the Five Tests. In fact, Williamson showed no sign of paying heed to the seriousness of the union's position.
The NEU made an interesting and important point during this meeting. They said that the NEU Check List "is to confirm when we say it is OK for schools to open; not for schools to use in order for them to decide that they have met the criteria and then for them to take a decision having met them". They also said that the NEU has produced a 20-page document outlining the union's Check List which is a set of guidelines to be used before it can be deemed safe for schools to go back. This is available for everyone to see and can be downloaded from their website.
Another issue about which the NEU is concerned is the question of who should be asked to teach in the classroom once schools do return to face-to-face teaching. The government has said that those who are "extremely vulnerable" will not have to teach in the classroom and can continue teaching virtually. However, the NEU says this definition is not enough. They have identified four categories of people who might be classed as "At Risk". These include:
i) Extremely vulnerable - those with immune deficiencies or other existing health conditions;
ii) Those who live with extremely vulnerable workers;
iii) Clinically vulnerable - pregnant women and those who have underlying health conditions such as mild to moderate asthma;
iv) Those who live with clinically vulnerable people.
At this point, the government is only recognising the first category.
It is clear that before schools should reopen the government must publish its scientific advice. Mary Bousted has stated that "we need to see the evidence, and the evidence needs to survive the scrutiny of scientific bodies and others" before we should be setting a return date. She said that to support this scientific advice, the Test, Track and Trace system needs to be up and running before any conclusions can be made. Kevin Courtney added that the risk to Afro-Caribbean and Asian people is much greater, and that all the evidence is showing that the risk for these people to return to work is much greater and the risk to them as a consequence, is much more dangerous.
In conclusion, it is clear that, as Mary Bousted said, "Education and schools are not going to be the same for a long time." In the coming year, "it simply cannot be business as usual, and it won't be possible for schools to get through those massive syllabuses". Further, she said that "the whole focus on catching up is wrong and any discussion of the way forward has to be in the context of recognising that nothing is the same, and that any solutions are going to have to be creative". Kevin Courtney added, "Schools will be in such a different position, even come September. So an early return of schools can have no meaningful outcome, and certainly no useful contribution to our education system."
The real issue at this time is: Who decides? The NEU alone has a membership of 450,000. The vast majority of these members stand alongside their union, and have been in very close discussion with them asserting that they do not think that schools should be returning on June 1. The government is not listening to those that do the job of education. And why not? Surely any responsible government would want to both listen to and act on the advice of the experts; those who deliver the education to pupils. Instead, they seem bent on serving the interests and the diktat and financial concerns of big business and the monopolies. Why else would they endanger not only all those that work within the education system, and not only school children, but potentially the whole of society, should it precipitate a resurgence of the pandemic?
Schools should only open when it is safe to do so. Education workers must decide!
Anne Elizabeth Longfield OBE is the Children's Commissioner for England. She was formerly chief executive of the charity 4Children.
A week ago she intervened in the contention as to whether it would be safe to reopen schools on June 1. She said that the government and teaching unions should "stop squabbling and agree a plan to get kids back into school". Anne Longfield said that many disadvantaged children were losing out because of schools being closed for so long. Thus under the cover of high ideals the dispute between teachers and government was trivialised. The remarks are seen to be directed against the collective of teachers whom those in authority want to paint as just making trouble when they should be working together with the government. But everyone knows that it is the government who should be working with the teachers. It is now being reported that at least 75% of schools will stay shut on June 1.
It should be mentioned that a group of independent scientists urged the government to delay reopening schools. Delaying the reopening of primary schools in England on June 1 by two weeks could halve the risk to each child of being exposed to an infectious classmate, according to a report by the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, a recently-formed group of scientists that is seeking to provide alternative advice to the government advisory body SAGE. The group say that modelling suggests that waiting until September would reduce this risk further, to less than the risk to children of road traffic accidents. The group is chaired by former government chief scientific advisor David King. "The crucial factor allowing school reopening around the world has been the presence of well-functioning local test, trace and isolate protocols - something that is now accepted will not be in place in England by early June," the report says. It adds that before schools can reopen, it is important to confirm that daily new coronavirus infections are decreasing and that schools have access to personal protective equipment.
Background of Anne Longfield (source: Wikipedia)
She was appointed the Children's Commissioner for England in March 2015. The role is to bring about long term change and improvements for all children, and in particular the most vulnerable, with a special focus on those in care.
She has powers of data collection under section 2f of The Children's Act (2014). These powers were added to the office from the original 2004 act which established the Children's Commissioner's role.
In 2015, shortly after starting her new role as children's Commissioner, Longfield was criticised for removing her Deputy, Sue Berelowitz, with an enhanced severance package, and then immediately hiring her back as a consultant. It transpired that this had taken place without securing the required approval from government ministers and was therefore an abuse of her powers. The arrangement was subsequently cancelled as a result of media attention and the organisation ordered to repay to HM Treasury £10,000 of misused public funds.
In recent years Longfield has developed a number of high profile and successful campaigns and policies surrounding children's mental health, vulnerable children and children growing up in the digital world. She also established Help at Hand, a helpline for children in care that has helped a thousand children every year.
Longfield is a strong critic of the home education system and likens it to 'imprisoning children'. She is also ardently anti-union branding them a disgrace to the education system.
Longfield is concerned about the effect of benefit cuts on vulnerable children in low income families. Longfield stated that universal credit and wider welfare reforms disproportionately affect single parents. Longfield stated, "There is a great risk here that the government looks like it's going back to an outdated... viewpoint which is demonising both single parents but also families claiming benefit, and working mothers."
Longfield also believes that face-to-face education is more important than the health of a child's family. Primarily, during the Covid-19 pandemic, she stated that delaying schools reopening would disadvantage children despite the likelihood that reopening schools would lead to the deaths of many of these children's parents, careers and teachers.
Children's Commissioner for England
The Office of the Children's Commissioner for England is a non-departmental public body in England responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as other human rights legislation, such as the Human Rights Act 1998. The Children's Commissioner was established under the Children Act 2004 to "represent the views and interests of children", and the office was further strengthened by the Children and Families Act 2014 providing a legal mandate to promote and protect the rights of children. The Children's Commissioner also has a duty to speak on behalf of all children in the United Kingdom on non-devolved issues, which include immigration, and youth justice in Wales.
The post of Children's Commissioner for England was established by the Children Act 2004 with the intended purpose of becoming the independent voice of children and young people, thereby championing their interests and bringing their concerns to the national arena. More than 130 organisations campaigned for the establishment of a Children's Commissioner for England for 13 years. Professor Al Aynsley-Green was appointed England's first Children's Commissioner in March 2005.
(References can be found on Wikipedia)
An online meeting hosted by Waltham Forest Save Our NHS (WFSONHS) took place on May 12, 2020.
The aim of the meeting was to demonstrate solidarity with all health and care workers during this unprecedented pandemic, and to support their demands for adequate personal protective equipment in the face of criminal government indifference.
WFSONHS pointed out: "The roots of this crisis, as is now widely understood, lie in the years of underinvestment in our health and social care services, and cuts and privatisation. The response to the pandemic reveals that our health and wellbeing depends on workers who are often undervalued and underpaid." WFSONHS also drew attention to the massive contribution that migrants are making to the NHS, with disproportionate numbers losing their lives. It called on all to put an end to the "hostile environment" facing minorities.
Speakers at the online meeting included John Cryer MP, Jackie Applebee GP, Chair of Doctors in Unite, Aliya Yule, Migrant Organiser of the Healthcare for All Campaign, Charlotte Monro, former Chair of Whipps Cross Hospital Staff-side Committee, Dr Nadia Audali, Member Green for Barts Health, and Kitty Worthing, junior doctor and member of Docs not Cops. All were speaking in a personal capacity.
Here we reprint extracts from the contribution by Charlotte Monro.
If NHS and care services had not had to face the Covid-19 pandemic from such a cut down state, it is very likely the consequences would have been less tragic. The UK has the second lowest number of hospital beds among 24 comparable countries - 2.5 per 1,000 population, to Germany's 8 per 1000. And the third-lowest number of doctors, with just 2.8 per 1,000 people. More than 17,000 beds have been cut in the last 10 years. The nursing workforce in England entered the Covid-19 crisis with almost 40,000 unfilled posts, one major reason being the introduction of tuition fees, as the health unions point out. This has led to a 31 per cent reduction in university applications for nursing courses.
How did we get there?
Healthcare has always been underfunded for the needs of our population in East London. Looking back, we have had cycles where services are developed then hit by a wave of cuts, built back up, and destroyed again. Always we have fought to protect services, the staff and the community together.
Back in 1997, the Health Authority launched cuts of millions of pounds. The most profound memory for me was seeing a dedicated senior health visitor in tears as she faced the destruction of the outstanding services she and her team had built, including achieving unprecedented near universal uptake in vaccinations for children, in a community with high levels of poverty and diversity.
In every period of destruction was the same sense of horror - knowing, foreseeing, the consequences for patients and colleagues of decisions imposed.
This goes to the heart of a problem during this pandemic. When the people who have the knowledge and who care are overruled, ignored, - or silenced - the consequences can be disastrous.
In 2006, Whipps Cross Hospital was placed in financial turnaround. Four wards and two operating theatres were to close with the loss of some 400 jobs. With every ward that shut, the days the hospital was on red alert increased.
Whipps had been rated "good" for clinical care by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). None of this made sense until we found out that Whipps was in fact fighting for its existence as a District General Hospital. At the same time the local Primary Care Trust was planning a 45% cut in health visitors and school nurses and a 22% cut in district nursing. And our privatised porters and domestic staff at Whipps were fighting for NHS level pay and conditions
A huge campaign, including the biggest demo Waltham Forest had seen, did save Whipps Cross. The Primary Care Trust withdrew its proposed cuts to community nursing.
Wind forward to 2013. A year after Whipps merged into Barts Health Trust, in deficit with hefty PFI costs, the Trust went into a disastrous financial turnaround. One thousand staff were hit with a huge down-banding exercise, ward sisters and nurse specialists were made to compete for their jobs, in a toxic climate of fear and bullying. We lost so many experienced committed staff. I remember going with two of the affected band-six nurses to a Trust Board meeting. They came after nightshift to warn the Board of the consequences of their plans. " If you go ahead staff will walk."
Staff wrote hundreds of responses a team of sisters on a paediatric ward: the restructuring "will create a unit that is unsafe and damaging to the children and young people in our local community."
[We] "are dedicated to the Unit and feel incredibly disheartened at what the future holds."
We wrote, we spoke, we demonstrated, but that future was realised with tragic consequences. In 2015 an inspection by the CQC found Whipps Cross Hospital to be unsafe due to low staffing, over dependency on agency staff and a climate of bullying against staff. The Trust was put into special measures.
I found myself disciplined then dismissed after speaking out publicly as a union rep. Reinstated 18 months later thanks to a campaign and a tribunal. It is an outrage that now some health and care workers around the country are facing the same threat for speaking out over lack of PPE.
A hospital is a community and ours at that time was traumatised. What was destroyed in weeks has taken years to re-build. Colleagues tell me now through the coronavirus pandemic, the Whipps Community Spirit has been strong.
But never again. We must never again let such destruction happen.
Whipps continues to be a hospital under pressure. In A&E last December, for example, trolleys and beds lined up along the corridors with people waiting through the night for admission because the hospital was full, as was occurring across the country. These pressures can be put firmly down to the lack of available beds, with hospitals operating at well over 90% bed occupancy.
Whipps Cross has been regularly operating at 98/99% bed occupancy. That means that virtually no beds are free across the hospital, and patients are unable to go to the right specialist wards.
We cannot allow our NHS to just go back to operating permanently on the edge of its capacity, with staff constantly working to exhaustion.
Major health unions and the NUS have called on the Secretary of State for Health to reinstate health student bursaries and write off their debt.
Here, we are planning a new hospital. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right. The new Whipps must be built with the space and capacity to meet the needs of our fast growing population, and have the capacity to meet peaks of demand and future health crises.
WFSONHS are very concerned that the bed numbers being planned are if anything less than Whipps has now. We cannot allow the current unsafe pressures to be built into the future. Our health and care must be properly funded. This should be a key purpose of our economy, that the value of the staff who provide it, so clear to all in this crisis, must be recognised in reality. Only if we fight for this will it happen.
In survey after health-union survey, staff report that the pressure they are working under means they cannot give their patients the kind of care they wish. Ironically, during the pandemic, with far fewer people coming to Emergency Departments, physicians describe how they have had the time to treat patients the way they would want. In Whipps Cross, as elsewhere, non-Covid wards were closed so staff could be concentrated to give all the care those very sick patients have needed. Society must value our health and care staff!
The pandemic has exposed the backwardness of the current organisation of the economy under the control of the imperialist oligarchy. Those who own and control the economy have organised it so that the actual producers of value are considered a cost of production in their accounts and consciousness, a designated human cost of production for those in ownership and control. To favour the narrow interests of the imperialist oligarchy and their insatiable thirst for private profit, wealth and power, the workers who produce all the goods and services that the people and society require to exist have been reduced to just another productive force similar to a machine that has no say in the organisation of work, its direction, planning or what becomes of the social product and its value.
The alienation of the workforce from the work it performs, from the means of production it uses, from the value it produces, from the direction of the economy and how it could be organised combines with workers' ignominious status as a cost of production to become a deadly combination for all, especially evident during this pandemic. Workers have no say in how the economy should respond to the pandemic. They are forced to listen to the ruling elite declare what is to be done and to complain after the fact when life falls apart.
Instead of being mobilised to participate actively and consciously in deciding how the battle against the virus should be fought, workers are victimised as something that must be downsized and deactivated similar to machinery so that those in control eliminate them as a cost during the period to save what they can of their private wealth, power and control.
The disempowerment of the working class extends beyond the workplace into politics and the social forms and private lives of the working people as they become targets of measures that those in authority deem necessary to deal with the pandemic. Deactivating a large section of the workforce, especially women and the youth, and refusing to mobilise the people to combat the pandemic, paralyses the economy and the entire society, endangering food security and the people's mental health.
Workers are the essential human factor in producing the goods and services that the people and society depend on for their existence and are the human force necessary to overcome a public health crisis. Disastrous consequences regularly occur from the ruling elite denying the human factor its right to direct the economy in which it works and from their refusal to recognise that those who do the work are those who should decide what should be done to deal with problems.
Driven to objectify workers as a cost of production and to insist that the only utility of the work they do is to generate private profit for the few, the ruling elite have made the situation worse during the pandemic with absurd decisions that defy reason. Instead of reorganising the workplace so social distancing can take place, which in most cases would require more workers spaced out in time and distance, either they simply eliminate production or make no changes, thus creating virus hot spots such as in agribusiness.
The scene is one of working people supposedly without brains, stuck in isolation without the capacity to confront the disease as thinking human beings in unity with their fellow Canadians. They are told to accept their condition as a subjugated social force awaiting instructions from the ruling elite on when they can move and breathe, denied the right and organised means to discuss and exchange views with their fellow human beings so as to activate the human factor/social consciousness and together defeat the pandemic through actions with analysis.
The ruling elite are standing in the way of the New; they are blocking the real advance that socialised humanity is ready to accept. The challenge is to find a way forward in practical terms past the obstruction by the social force presently in control.
(TML Weekly, May 16, 2020)
Terina Hine, Stop the War
On Tuesday, May 19, Stop the War held its first ever online Steering Committee meeting, with over 50 attendees from local groups around the country taking part.
Lindsey German introduced the meeting with a summary of how the coronavirus crisis has increased international tensions rather than reduced them. In particular, the Trump administration has sharply ramped up anti-Chinese provocations including various military missions. Meanwhile, the Tories are ratcheting up arms spending and the new Labour leadership is retreating on key Corbyn-era foreign policy positions.
It was also reported that despite the difficulties of lockdown, by organising our public events online we have reached a huge new audience. Our last two events were watched by 9,000 and 16,000 people respectively. Our next national event looks like it will break all our viewing records. Arundathi Roy and Jeremy Corbyn will be in conversation with Tariq Ali on Saturday, June 6, at midday. They will be discussing coronavirus, war and empire.
It is anticipated that some local groups and supporters will hold Watch Parties for the event, extending the audience reach even further. If you would like to join in with this initiative and hold your own Watch Party please do. It really is easy. You can create a watch party from your FaceBook News Feed or timeline, in a group, on a Page, or when you start watching from the live feed.
Local groups told us they are keen to organise Zoom meetings of their own - especially following the success of Manchester StW's Assange meeting last month. One of the advantages of online meetings is that they allow local groups to access a wide range of speakers who don't have to travel, as well as a wider audience from across the country. Watch this space and we'll keep you informed of local events.
There are a number of important international campaigns that we will be participating in over the coming weeks and. months. In particular against RIMPAC - international naval manoeuvre in the Pacific at the end of August. We will soon be announcing a meeting.
Finally, we discussed the growth of our movement. We always aim to increase our membership - the more members we have the stronger we are. It is especially important now as the lockdown has involved a re-organsation and new costs. We are very pleased that we have been able to increase our membership already since the beginning of the current crisis - but if you have not yet joined us there is really no time like the present! Click on the link below to become part of Stop the War and our growing movement.
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