Workers must not be made to pay for Covid crisis

Beware the second wave: not just the threat to lives from a further spike in Covid-19, but to livelihoods from impending recession, mass unemployment and an increasingly likely ‘no deal’ Brexit. Without the massive government bailout protecting nine million workers, the 600,000 increase in unemployment would run into millions -as in the US where 45 million workers are now jobless. The economy tanked in the first quarter of 2020 by 20%. The deficit has risen by almost £60 billion with worse to come.

As Bryn Jones argues, as furloughing tapers and ends in October the danger will be that the cost will be laid on the shoulders of working people. He sees two routes ahead: the most likely, a debt-fuelled, low-tax road with heavy company closures, widespread redundancies and increased casualisation. Labour should push vigorously for the alternative route of conditional state aid, comprehensive labour market retraining and reallocation of workers to green socially useful production, with universal basic income replacing the discredited benefits system.

This chimes with the approach of the TUC, as explained by Frances O’Grady. They propose an Economic Recovery Council to provide a voice for workers in a planned rebuilding in the turbulent times ahead. But will this government of die-hards listen? Government failure on workplace safety does not augur well.

Duncan Bowie argues that the precedent set for massive state intervention provides an opportunity to move towards a devolved, localised polycentric development of towns, employment and housing provision. This should certainly be Labour’s approach as the party reviews policy.

Besides growing economic turmoil – particularly in the hospitality, travel, cultural and creative industries, with millions of jobs threatened – there is the ongoing health emergency coupled with a resurgence of anger about inequality and racism.

Britain has the third-highest death toll in the world from Covid-19. The 45,000 figure is likely to be a significant under counting if excess deaths over last year’s rate are taken into account.

Lockdown was slow and even a week earlier could have prevented 20,000 deaths, claims Professor Niall Ferguson. This theme is explored by Dr Allyson Pollock and Dr Louisa Harding-Edgar. They examine the catalogue of failures in the NHS and social care systems, painting a devastating picture of the spread of the contagion. Perhaps the worst feature was treating our care homes as a Cinderella service, sending elderly hospital patients back into homes without testing and then failing to provide protective equipment to staff. This was compounded by a lack of testing and tracing until late in the day and a failed app.

Unlike in Germany, where decentralised teams of public health staff worked in neighbourhoods to test, track and quarantine, the UK has largely adopted a centralised system, decoupling testing from contact-tracing. This was worsened by outsourcing both testing and contact-tracing to private sector companies like Serco and Deloitte, bypassing experienced local expertise. The much heralded ‘world beating’ app has proved a further failure. As David McCoy, professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University London has said, contact-tracing has been a shambles, showing “a disdain for evidence, an obsession with centralised control and privileging of private over public interests”.

The Cummings scandal and footballer Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to reinstate school food vouchers for the poorest families over the summer holidays illustrate just how out of touch the government has become. The government has been forced into embarrassing U-turns in its school opening plans. Dave Lister examines the catalogue of errors characterising school policy, whilst highlighting the regressive curriculum imposed by Michael Gove in 2010.

Lack of education on black history connects with the explosion of rage felt by black and white people at the police murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Unmesh Desai and Patrick Vernon highlight the continuing scandal of inequality and inaction on race by successive Tory governments. Both make clear it is not another race commission that’s needed but action on black deaths in custody, discrimination at work, police stop and search, and, of course, the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Women have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Alice Arkwright reports on the higher levels of redundancies among women, the intensification of the domestic burden of housework and childcare and other regressive impacts. Sabia Kamali of Sisters Forum looks at the worsening levels of domestic abuse facing women during lockdown and the erosion of support services.

Labour’s shadow front bench, led by Keir Starmer, have begun to take back the initiative from this incompetent and uncaring government. But, as Don Flynn argues here, the review of the election defeat leaves many questions unanswered, glossing over the alleged internal subversion of Jeremy Corbyn. Peter Kenyon highlights a no-deal Brexit as the other big challenge hovering under the radar of Covid-19. Without a trade deal, requiring an extended transition, the prospect of economic crash looms. Labour and unions should be preparing to meet the challenge.

Of course Labour would have faced the same challenges in the face of this global pandemic, but the approach would have been very different. “Too little too late” has characterised the government’s shambolic approach. Medical opinion is pretty united in condemning the miscalculations, from ignoring World Health Organisation warnings in January, treating coronavirus like a flu, abandoning test, trace and isolate on 12 March, lack of PPE for front line staff in care homes and hospitals, a lack of international cooperation… The list goes on.

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