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Wales in further lockdown

Wales is about to go into its second national lockdown known as a ‘firebreak lockdown’ which has come after local lockdowns throughout large parts of both North and South Wales.

The intention is to ensure that we stem the tide now, and ensure that Christmas is ‘saved for everyone’. Immediately the actions of the Welsh government fail at this on the first hurdle as workers who are unable to work in areas of the economy who face temporary closure will potentially only receive a percentage of their pay, perfect timing to ensure a bleak financial Christmas!

The new lockdown measures are nonsensical and ineffective by the very nature of the exemptions. Mark Drakeford, Labour First Minister of Wales announced As of Friday 23rd at 6pm the following rules will be in force until Monday until Monday 9th November.

  • All non-essential shops, café’s pubs’ restaurants, gyms, community centres, libraries and places of worship along with other similar venues must close.
  • Everyone must work from home if they can
  • All indoor and outdoor gatherings with people you do not live with are banned
  • You can only leave your house for a limited number of reasons such as for exercise, for essential shopping or to provide care or support for someone.
  • You cannot enter or leave Wales during this time without a reasonable excuse

Fixed penalty fines of £60 rising to £120 will also be in force for anyone caught breaching the rules.

Covid cases on the rise

However despite these tighter restrictions, schools will reopen after the half-term break from the 2nd of November, though only those in year 8 and under, who otherwise would need child care. Universities will also remain open continuing to offer a mix of online and in-person education. A bizarre situation as these are the two areas in which the virus has been spreading the most.

Wales currently has 1,091.1 cases per 100,000 of the population with Merthyr and Rhondda Cynon Taf local authorities rising to 2,120.1 and 1,822.5, respectively. Both these local authorities combined make up much of the Cwm Taf health board. Comparing to Manchester, which has been at the height of the tensions across England with a rate of 424/100,000 shows the dire need to get a grip on the virus. Cases are on the rise, on October the 20th Wales recorded more than 1,000 new cases on a single day.

There is no clear reporting on cases within schools in Wales, which begs the question, without adequate reporting, how can you determine it is ok for schools to stay open? Some local authorities have not been willing to comment on cases within schools (Merthyr, for example, has not) but those that have beenshow a dire picture. Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority revealed that there were confirmed cases in 53 schools, but this was announced on the 5th October with no update to this since.

Outbreaks of the virus within hospitals have severely impacted the ability to function. Royal Glamorgan  saw an outbreak with 127 cases recorded within the hospital itself. The firebreak lockdown is being implemented partly  because the NHS can no longer cope with the strain. The ability to handle the pandemic has been exacerbated by decades of underfunding and cuts from the Labour-led Welsh government –  just prior to the outbreak they had attempted to close the A&E department at the Royal Glamorgan hospital!

Lessons not learned

Lessons have not been learnt from the first national lockdown down or the localised lockdowns which followed. This will only  temporarily alleviate the virus. Just like previous lockdowns, no measures have been put in place to care for the vulnerable suffering from isolation either due to mental or physical health. Workers will suffer further through loss of pay. The instruction of “work from home if you can”, is not a decision that workers can make for themselves, but a decision left with employers without any oversight, and there are already cases of workers forced to work in unsafe conditions. Even though the majority of parents will want their children in school, of course with the proper safety measures in place, it’s significant that it is only children in Year 8 and below who will remain in school. This is done with the economy in mind – so that parents of younger children can go to work – instead of what is most safe. Meanwhile, those who are facing GCSE exams next year will suffer by not being in school. 

What is the answer?

Despite all the announcements by Mark Drakeford, the one thing that was noticeable by its absence was any reference to track and trace. This temporary lockdown should be used as an opportunity to bring track and trace up to scratch to avoid further cycles of lockdowns by effectively tracking the spread of the virus so that outbreaks can be isolated.

The labour movement must develop a programme which will genuinely find a route out of the current pandemic as it is clear that politicians, whose main aim is to keep the economy open as much as possible, are incapable of doing so. This must include democratic workers’ control over what measures are taken, including at a local level. This must include demands for real and meaningful track and trace, not farmed off to private companies more interested in making a profit, but dealt with directly by the NHS, given all the resources needed to develop this as quickly and as extensively as necessary. Unions within schools should have oversight on the  safety measures in place to ensure that schools are organised in a safe way  without putting students and staff at risk.

It should be workers themselves who decide what work is essential and what work is not, who can work from home and who cannot, rather than employers without any democratic accountability. Where it is deemed that a section of workers are not essential, they should be guaranteed their full wages and should not be forced to pay the cost of the mishandling of the pandemic by politicians. 

The pandemic, it is clear, may be with us for some time. It is equally clear that it can be handled very differently, in the interests of ordinary people and not the interests of the bank balances of the rich. The above steps, not only would ensure that we deal with the ongoing pandemic in a more effective way, but also pose the question of how society could actually be run in the future, who actually keeps the world running, the employers or the essential workers, and do we actually need the employers at the top or could ordinary people run society in our own interest and the interest of the planet?

Caerphilly County lockdown: we’re not all in this together

New lockdown measures started in Caerphilly County at 6pm on 9 September. The reasons for it, and the nature of the new lockdown measures reveal quite starkly the priorities of the Senedd (Welsh Government).

The background to these new measures is a rise in cases with 133 confirmed cases in the last week alone, equivalent to 55.4 cases per 100,000 people (one of the highest in Wales). Wales currently has the highest density of confirmed cases of any nation in the UK (6,000 per million compared to England at 5,272 and Scotland at 4,041).

Vaughan Gething, the Labour health minister for Wales, has attributed this to people (particularly young people) meeting indoors and not following social distancing guidelines, and to overseas summer holidays. He ignores the fact that pubs are open, public transport is crowded and schools have been open, often in a far-from safe manner, with whole-class bubbles of 30 or more. At the time of writing several schools throughout Wales have already been forced to close due to recent outbreaks, including several schools within Caerphilly County itself. Non-essential businesses have reopened. With the furlough scheme coming to an end, many small businesses face a bleak choice of bankruptcy or unsafe working. Recent pictures on social media have shown social distancing not being enforced, perhaps partly because businesses are desperate to get more customers in to attempt to recover from lost earnings of previous months.

Meeting indoors with a lack of social distancing can contribute to outbreaks. But the messages from both the UK government at Westminster and from Cardiff Bay have been very confusing at best, which has contributed to this. Travel abroad may increase the risk. But overseas travel at the moment falls mainly into two general categories – those who travel to visit family members they have not been able to visit for some time due to lockdown measures, and those who have pre-booked holidays who have no option to cancel with a full refund.

The new lockdown measures in Caerphilly Country include facemasks being mandatory for everyone over eleven inside shops (this had not previously been mandatory in Wales) and all gatherings in the home being forbidden. You are also not allowed to leave the county without good reason, such as to attend work or to care for others, but as Caerphilly has transformed increasingly into a commuter town for Cardiff this is largely an ineffective measure and is more for show. Indeed, the very fact that areas of Caerphilly County have become commuter towns is likely a large part of the reason for a spike in cases as many people will be crammed together on buses and trains during rush hour.

Questioned on why pubs would remain open, the health minister stated with certainty that the virus is not being transmitted in pubs but only in gatherings within the home. You now have the farcical situation that you cannot visit a family member (unless you care for them) or simply cycle for exercise from Caerphilly to Cardiff (12 miles) but you can go from Ystryd Mynach to Caerphilly town to go to the pub (also 12 miles). You can’t go to a friend’s house, but depending on your age, you can sit next to them in class or go to the pub with them. The only measures brought in are designed to have zero impact on any economic activity.

The coronavirus pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year for everyone, having to find new ways of communicating, working and socialising. Lockdown measures have been necessary to attempt to stem the spread of the virus. But these new measures are a lockdown for people, not for the economy. The social isolation, which has affected mental health and led to a crisis in domestic violence, will continue. The most vulnerable will be hit hardest through a lack of planning for those who need any type of support with day-to-day activities.

We cannot return to normal and risk overwhelming our already overworked health workers, plus a big rise in the death toll. But neither can we stay in a perpetual state of lockdown which is taking its toll of the wellbeing of everyone. We need a strategy which puts ordinary working-class people and their needs at the heart of solving this crisis.

This will cost money, but they money does exist in society. Jeff Bezos, who runs Amazon, is set to become the worlds first trillionaire, profiting greatly from the pandemic. But Amazon famously uses various loopholes to avoid paying the correct rate of tax. Estimates suggest the shortfall is in the £100’s of millions. The cost of replacing trident nuclear weapons is estimated to be £205 billion! But capitalism is based on the pursuit of profit and not the needs of working-class people like us, and therefore cannot deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

The labour movement must develop a programme is developed which will genuinely find a route out of the current pandemic. This must include democratic workers control over what measures are taken, including at a local level. Is it safe for schools to open, what measures need to be put in place and what resources are needed for this to happen? If it is not possible to open safely then funds must be made available to ensure parents have all the necessary learning tools available at home, if wanted. No one must suffer any loss of income through time taken off work. These decisions should be made by democratically elected representatives of teachers, parents and the community. Is it safe for non-essential businesses to open? If not, there must be funds to ensure full pay to any workers affected by a closure of their workplace, including those who are self employed. We need a huge increase in funding for services for victims of domestic violence, and a dramatic expansion of social care services.

We must fight for the necessary measures to tackle to pandemic. But doing so also presents an opportunity to start a discussion about the type of society we need – one not based on the needs of the economy but based on the needs of ordinary people. The Covid-19 pandemic affects us all, but we are not all in this together. Working class people have lost jobs; become teachers to their children, whilst working or taking huge cuts in pay; been forced to continue in unsafe working environments. Meanwhile the billionaires have increased their wealth even further by taking advantage of the pandemic. We need to fight back against the Covid-19 virus and the virus of capitalism, which can only serve to worsen the pandemic.

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