Socialist Alternative

Understanding Leicester’s Lockdown: A Tale of Tory Chaos

Full lockdown of the economy is controversial and damaging in a variety of ways and most people would agree that it should only be undertaken when the available scientific evidence suggests that it is unavoidable. During the early stages of this ongoing pandemic the Tories tried to push forward with what was widely held to be a reckless “herd immunity” approach, but when it became evident that this approach would result in a massive number of deaths and the total overloading of our health services, the Tories implemented a lockdown.

What is most critical to recognise in the implementation of the belated lockdown was that the government did not take this action voluntarily, and right until the last moment the Tories had tried to ignore what their own advisors were saying to them. Credit for the lockdown should be given to the concerted pressure put on the government by the trade union movement (with a particularly commendable role played by the National Education Union) who looked at what the scientific evidence was saying and took the appropriate actions.

Unfortunately, as we all now know the lockdown came too late, and the UK’s per capita death toll ranks amongst the highest in the world. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Tories continued to blunder through this pandemic, making elementary mistakes which resulted in the needless deaths of thousands.

From the beginning of the pandemic the government has told lie after lie: first that they weren’t trying to promote “herd immunity,” and later saying we should open our schools because children don’t actually transmit the coronavirus as much as adults (despite the fact that their own data from the Office of National Statistics showed that there was no statistical difference between any age group carrying the virus). Pushing ahead undeterred, the Tories told us schools would be reopening for business at the start of June. But thankfully a combination of pressure from trade unions and concerned parents forced a partial retreat.

Although tragically – feeling the pressure from the government — too many schools did end up reopening (even if partially) prior to the government fulfilling its promise of getting a working track-and-trace system in place to protect our communities. On this latter point: the ongoing failure of the government’s ability to implement what should be a fairly simple track-and-trace system owes much to their decision to trust the private sector to deliver the goods. The Tories are giving contracts to the very corporations with a proven track record of profiteering at the publics’ expense.

What could have been done?

As noted already, an ideal response to the pandemic would not have necessitated a full national lockdown at all. Instead if the government had taken the threat of pandemics seriously, they would have not cut our NHS to the bone, and they would have worked out a strategy for containing outbreaks with locally informed responses based on accurate data on infection rates, with mass testing and tracing. This would have meant having a competent government that was willing to put the needs of ordinary people before the needs of big business – a socialist alternative, where decisions are made by workers for workers!

July 4th has come and gone, and the national lockdown has now been lifted, but without the necessary safeguards in place to protect ordinary workers (not that they were in place anyway). The only people who remain protected are the super-rich, those who by virtue of their accumulated wealth — that is generated from the hard work of the working-class — are able to isolate themselves from the hustle and bustle of working life.

The only city that remained in lockdown beyond “super Saturday” was Leicester. Once you dig into the details of what has happened, it is clear that no city is safe from the Tories ongoing pandemic pandemonium. In an ideal world you might assume that the government would provide meaningful scientific data to local authorities up and down the country, in order to alert them to the pandemic spread. But the government has once again utterly failed in its democratic duty to be trusted to do even this, a colossal failure that has now seen Leicester locked into another two weeks of wholly avoidable pain.

Vital data not shared

In the case of Leicester, it seems that while the government and private sector profiteers providing testing services for the Tories understood that the pandemic was still spreading in parts of our city, they decided to keep this knowledge to themselves. This meant that local authority leaders only had a view of the infection data that was derived from the testing carried out in the NHS (so-called pillar 1 tests), and these test results were demonstrating that the infection rate had been on the downturn for some time. Needless to say Boris Johnson knew what was going on and on July 1 he boasted in parliament that “The government first took notice and acted on what was going on in Leicester on 8 June, because we could see that there was an issue there.” This ‘cleverness’ on the part of the government owed entirely to the fact that only they had sight of the decisive private sector test results for Leicester (the pillar 2 tests) while the City Council were deliberately kept in the dark. This critical data that only Johnson and his chums could see showed that the total daily infection rate on June 2 had already reached 67 in Leicester, while the Labour Council only had access to pillar 1 results which indicated only 7 people had tested positive that day.

In response, Johnson then pretended that the government had leapt into action to save the day, and he stated that they sent “four more mobile testing units” to Leicester “shortly thereafter” June 8th. The problem here is that Johnson’s statement is simply not true. In fact, prior to the peak Leicester only had one testing facility which was located five miles from the city centre (in Birstall), and for a few days only had a temporary visit from a mobile testing unit (which arrived on June 2 and left shortly after).

Instead of ordering a quick response, the government waited to let the city open their shops on June 15, then waited a few more days, until June 18, when the Tories finally managed to get around to opening their first permanent testing unit within the city itself (in Evington). On this day, one week after the government apparently noticed a problem, but 16 days after Leicester had a sizable pillar 2 infection spike, the government partially shared some of their pillar 2 data, and on the same night Matt Hancock decided to announce that the city now had an “outbreak” on its hands.

At this stage Leicester’s Labour City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby repeated a request he had made many times earlier that the government immediately share the detailed information from the partly revealed pillar 2 data so that Leicester could plan a response to contain the apparent outbreak. Thus, on June 19 Soulsby explained to the press that Leicester “doesn’t have crucial detail about where people who have been tested are from.” He added: “That is the only way we can get a proper picture of what is happening, what communities are being affected and then start to do anything about it.”

Failed by the government

The government chose to ignore the council’s reasonable requests and waited a few more days before setting up a second testing unit in the city (in Spinney Hills Park) on June 21. Then on June 25 the government established a third city-based testing site in Victoria Park. On this latter day, now many weeks into Leicester’s alleged crisis, the government finally shared the detailed results of pillar 2 testing with the city.

Unbeknown to local politicians, on June 28 the Tories then announced on television that Leicester was potentially facing a full lockdown. Then, against Soulsby’s very reasonable reservations, the city was quickly forced into accepting a two-week extension to their lockdown, with this decision being announced the following evening by Matt Hancock.

What we see here are the actions of an incompetent and bullying government who are deliberately trying to make a Labour-run council look like fools in their apparent mishandling of the pandemic. And while socialists have criticisms of Soulsby’s many political failures (including his long standing opposition to basic socialist ideas which was extended to his opposition to Jeremy Corbyn), what is clear is that Leicester was not given the data it needed to plan a targeted response to a localised outbreak.

Increase in cases or increase in testing?

Soulsby’s initial reluctance to enforce the Tories’ city-wide lockdown has been widely ridiculed and misreported on in the national media, but it turns out that his views on this matter were actually better informed by science than those pushed by the government. On the same day that the Tories publicly announced that the council had reluctantly agreed to the new lockdown (Monday, June 29), a critical report had been published by Public Health England’s Rapid Investigation Team which was titled “Preliminary investigation into COVID-19 exceedances in Leicester.” Importantly this report, drew particular attention to the high level of reported incidents “related to food factories/outlets” — which fits with reports about the lack of social distancing being carried out at one of Leicester’s largest food factories owned by the Tory-supporting owners of Samworth Brothers.

But most crucially the report concluded that “Evidence for the scale of the outbreak is limited and may, in part, be artificially related to growth in availability of testing.” This was a serious criticism that was largely overlooked in the media, and what it points to most of all is the ongoing failure of the government to collect the type of infection data that is useful for enabling local authorities to understand and contain outbreaks of the pandemic.

More localised testing obviously results in the identification of more infections, but without contextual information the persistent reporting of such isolated numbers means next to nothing. Hence we should be glad that more recently the Science Media Centre published a short report on July 2 which reviewed the recommendations made within Public Health England’s report. This led to one of the scientists reviewing the report to make a positive suggestion for remedying this problem, writing that “whether the rise in new cases [in Leicester] is attributable to the wider availability of testing could be tested by comparing the rates per 10,000 population between Leicester and other areas after normalisation by the total number of tests performed in each area.” Unfortunately, as obvious as this suggestion sounds, the Tories have neglected to perform such analyses – they seem to ignore all common-sense recommendations. And to make matters worse the government hasn’t even begun to undertake the type of randomised testing of the UK’s total population that would allow them to make accurate predictions for the true infection rate in different parts of the country. It is what we knew all along, the government simply doesn’t care about saving lives and minimising the spread of the pandemic, which is why we need to organise to remove them from power.

A selection of some of the still relevant demands that Socialist Alternative were raising from the beginning of the national lockdown (which can be read in full here) to help protect and extend workers’ rights during the lockdown included:

  • Closure of all non-essential workplaces, with no job losses and wages guaranteed – including for workers on precarious or zero-hour contracts. Employers to support work from home arrangements wherever possible
  • A programme of massive increase in hospital bed provision, including requisition of private hospital beds and secondment of medical workers in the private sector to the NHS – no compensation for private health bosses
  • Nationalise the pharmaceutical companies under democratic workers’ control and management
  • Proper protection of all health workers’ health – including mental health, – safety and working conditions. Democratic workers’ committees in each hospital to ensure health and safety of all workers and patients
  • A democratic, socialist world where the means of production are collectively owned and planned to meet the needs of all, rather than the profits of the tiny few

Covid-19: Nadia Whittome sacked for speaking out – protect our care workers!

What the appalling death toll from the ongoing pandemic makes absolutely clear is that all public services must be renationalised so that they are run and funded under democratic workers control. This is as true for our education system as it is for our health services. Privately-run service providers do not act in the best interests our countries’ key workers, let alone for the service users.

The poor treatment of frontline workers, who have risked so much to keep society running, has been a sickening part of this entire pandemic, and the recent termination of employment for one high-profile worker crystallises the need for an immediate change in how our country is run.

The worker in question is Labour MP for Nottingham East, Nadia Whittome. With the onset of the pandemic she returned to her old job working as a carer for the elderly. But Whittome is a rare breed amongst the leaders of the Labour Party, because since her election in 2019 she has only been taking an average workers wage, donating the majority of her parliamentary wages to charity. In the same way she has been given all the money from her care job to charity too.

But on Wednesday night Nadia found that she no longer had a job with her second employer ExtraCare Charitable Trust – they decided that they had too many staff and no longer required her help. In reality, she was sacked because she had been outspoken in the national media about the shortage of PPE at ExtraCare, and her bosses weren’t impressed. Nadia’s contract was effectively terminated with no notice. She found herself in this impossible position because, like hundreds of thousands of other care workers, Nadia was employed on a zero-hour contract.

One has to wonder what sort of society we live in where employees working for a charity which cares for the elderly can exploit their workers (even MPs) so easily. Another question that comes to mind is why do we rely on charities to care for the elderly? ExtraCare may have said they were overstaffed but there is always work to be done in their care villages, this much is made clear by the fact that the charity boasts that, in 2019, unpaid volunteers undertook the equivalent of £4.3 million of work for the charity (that is, if you assume that they earned minimum wage).

One might also wonder where ExtraCare’s loyalties really lie: with the elderly or with their well-paid bosses? Between 2015 and 2019, ExtraCare’s income from their paying customers increased from just over £9 million to just over £16 million a year, while the number of full time equivalent carers was moving in the opposite direction and had decreased by about a third (from 919 to 612). Over this same time the proportion of pay going to top earners massively increased too. So, in 2015 ExtraCare employed just 9 employees earning more than £60,000 a year, while in 2019 the number earning this much rocketed up to 26 individuals. The combined spend on these big charity earners also increased too, from just over £1 million in 2015 to over £2 million in 2019.

This income inequality between the very low paid carers (many of whom are on zero-hour contracts) and their bosses (who have permanent secure contracts) more than illustrates the need for change. As a first step, ExtraCare must be forced by the trade union movement to reinstate Nadia to her care job. A campaign must be launched to ensure that care workers are given a real living wage of £15 an hour, with permanent contracted hours. Zero-hour contracts enable a culture of bullying and victimisation and must, therefore, be banned. But the trade union movement must go further in demanding that the entire care sector is nationalised under workers control, so as to ensure that services are joined up, fully transparent, and run for need not profit. Care workers deserve nothing less!

In the short-term pressure should be brought to bear upon ExtraCare’s unpaid board of trustees to encourage them to support the reinstate Nadia, and to improve the conditions of their workforce. Some of the members of this board who are ostensibly committed to promote the health of the working-class include:

Covid-19: demanding Safe Working Conditions for Britain’s Key Food Workers

Key workers around the world are keeping us alive during this pandemic, yet time and time again bosses and capitalist politicians are failing to do anything meaningful to protect their lives. But these workers are beginning to speak out and mobilise against their disgusting treatment.

Earlier this morning a food worker employed by Samworth Brothers (a food manufacturer famous for producing Ginsters products and Melton Mowbray pork pies) spoke to the Bakers Union to blow the whistle on their bosses. Samworth Brothers, which employs over 9,000 workers nationally, has a longstanding reputation for attacking workers’ rights so, for obvious reasons, the employee wished to remain anonymous.

This is what they said:

“A few weeks ago, management started to remind all their workers about us being a very big family, that we care about each other, but now we don’t see this at all. We are just normal workers who have to do our jobs, and we are not treated like family.

“Family protects your members, Samworth don’t. If we were really being treated like a family then management would be concerned about our health and lives… so this is not a family this is more like a dictatorship.”

“I hope that something changes because when I wake up every day my first thoughts are of fear, of having to go to work. The first time I felt like this was just last week. Now all I think about after waking up are the dangerous conditions we have to face at work.”

Like most factories, some limited measures have been taken by Samworth to help protect their workers. These include the enforcement of strict social distancing in their canteen. But on the shop floor things are very different, and as the whistle-blower explained “even when managers see that workers are too close together they do nothing.” If management can’t be bothered to take adequate safety measures they should be shut down for the duration of the pandemic (with workers maintained on full pay), and trade unions should be brought in to ensure that when their sites do reopen that their premises are safe.

Samworth Brothers have also put their staff at risk because they refuse to pay agency workers who are having to self-isolate after exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19. This creates a culture of presenteeism, where workers are compelled to attend, even if ill, because of the threat of a massive loss of pay. It is not as if Samworth cannot afford to put their workers’ needs first. By 2017, Sir David Samworth, who is a Tory donor, had amassed a personal fortune in excess of £500million. Perhaps he might skip this year’s donation to the Tories and use this money to ensure the safety of his employees. Full pay for the duration of the pandemic, whether workers can come to work or not, must be guaranteed. This is a question of basic safety and not doing it will put lives in danger!

But of course, these issues are not unique to Samworth Brothers. Rival food manufacturing company, 2 Sisters Food Group (with a workforce of 20,000+) is also failing to provide basic safety for its workers, as reported in a local newspaper, Eastern Daily, earlier today:

“One worker, who completed his first shift at 2 Sisters in Thetford last week, said he was surprised to spend the shift just half-a-metre from other staff. ‘What struck me was the lack of checks,’ he said. ‘I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people on the line.’… The 2 Sisters worker said he was given protective equipment such as boots, a hairnet and overcoat, but claimed he had no training before he started his shift.” (Eastern Daily Press, April 1)

2 Sisters also have a reputation for poor treatment of workers. Indeed, one of 2 Sisters’ board of directors is Alex Russo, who moonlights as the Chief Finance Officer for the budget supermarket Wilko. Last week, Russo and the rest of the corporate management were forced to backtrack on plans to scrap sick pay for Wilko staff. This was a direct result of shop-floor anger and organisation and clearly shows the way forward for Samworth and 2 Sisters workers.

As ever, there are many difficulties in organising to protect and extend workers’ rights in the food manufacturing sector, but these are not insurmountable by any means.

Only last week Irish food workers employed by ABP Meats and by Linden Foods led successful union walkouts of their factories in defence of safe working conditions in their factories. This is despite the fact that exploitation in many workplaces has been intensified in recent years by the routine use of zero-hour contracts, which is supplemented by the anti-union stance adopted by food bosses.

But the only way that workers can stand-up in defence of their workplace rights is by banding together in trade unions so they can speak with a united voice when bargaining with their employer. Individually questioning workers can always be picked off by management, but when they voice their complaints collectively through the democratic structure of trade unions everything changes, and bosses, no matter how bad, can be forced to make changes that improve the working lives of all workers.

Throughout history it has always been the case that workplace rights have been extended through the struggle of ordinary workers. Thus important lessons can also be drawn from recent trade union victories across the country, including from members of Unite who forced Kent’s Norse Medway to implement coronavirus safety measures for key workers after staff walked out (April 1) – the Norse Group is a facilities contractor employing more than 10,000 people; members of the GMB union who walked out to condemn DHL, which runs a Swindon warehouse on behalf of M&S, for failing to prioritise worker safety (April 1); CWU union members at three Scottish sites, who took industrial action to raise their concerns with poor health and safety arrangements (the most recent walkout took place earlier today in Edinburgh (April 1); Unite members employed by Hackney APCOA Parking who forced their employer to implement safety measures and in the process won a 50% pay increase for working during the health emergency (April 1) – APCOA has more than 4,000 employees across 12 countries; and Unite members at outsourcing giant Amey PLC who forced management to agree to union demands to acknowledge that all its workers in the UK will be fully paid if required to self-isolate due to the coronavirus (March 31) – Amey employs over 17,000 workers across four continents.

Food workers have always deserved more than minimum wage, and now they are once again beginning to fight back and demand they are treated like the key workers that they are. Food workers deserve more than the minimum wage crumbs being offered by their millionaire bosses, which is why it is vital to support them by fighting to raise this minimum wage to £12 a hour, with the aim of raising it to a real living wage of £15 an hour in the very near future. Why should food workers and the rest of the working- lass continue to enrich fat-cat bosses when they treat us with so little respect?

Instead, food workers need to continue to get organised in the workplace, and to join with socialists and trade unionists and help lead the fight for a socialist alternative. The world is ours to win.