by Tom Costello, Socialist Alternative Political Committee
After weeks of inaction, Boris Johnson has finally given up his 'herd immunity strategy', issuing his call for a nationwide lockdown in response to the escalating COVID-19 outbreak. This represents a dramatic shift, forced on Johnson by the dramatic escalation of the crisis. But it should be remembered that it was only just over a week ago that his chief advisor Dominic Cummings is alleged to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it”.
Under these latest measures, gatherings of more than two people will be banned. People will be granted the right to leave their homes only in case of work, for essential supplies, to aid vulnerable people or for one round of exercise. A review for possible scaling down of the measures will take place on April 13. Though already speculation about the prospect of even tougher measures being introduced is rife.
Measures like these will understandably be seen as necessary by many. Although there have been 3,000 registered cases of COVID-19 infection in the UK, the real number is certainly much higher. It is thus no surprise that the overwhelming majority of working-class people have taken the need to slow the spread of the virus extremely seriously and remained indoors where possible.
Socialist Alternative agrees that measures are needed to halt the further spread of the Coronavirus. But this does not mean letting the government off the hook. It should be pointed out that it has been, in the main, the failure of the government to act in a clear way, not the fault of ordinary people, which has allowed this crisis to spiral more and more out of control. The catastrophic failure of the government, and the big business interests which it defends, to provide widespread free testing, effective masks for health other vulnerable workers or sufficient quantities of essential healthcare supplies including personal protective equipment and ventilators have caused far more damage and continue to do so. Many workers continue to be forced to work in non-essential workplaces meaning they have the potential to unwillingly act to spread the virus.
The truth is we can't trust those who bear most responsibility for this crisis to be the ones to get us out of it. We can't trust Johnson, whose strategy just weeks ago was to willingly let thousands get sick and die, to act with the best interests of working-class people at heart. It should not be Johnson and the Tories, but workers - especially those most on the front line in dealing with this crisis - who get to democratically decide on what measures are needed and for how long.
But a lockdown organised by the Johnson government and enforced by the capitalist state could have serious implications for democratic rights, such as the ability for workers to fight back against the effects of the economic crisis this has triggered - or to fight for basic health and safety in a context of employers continuing to prioritise profit over workers staying home to stem the spread. This is particularly worrying as there is no end time currently given for these new powers. Police will be given the immediate right to disperse gatherings, adopting a widened use of surveillance technology to oversee the measures.
Although the underfunding and understaffing of police over the last decade will make this difficult to fully enforce some of these new regulations, this is still something that should concern the labour movement, especially when workers move to take action. Any measure used to strengthen state forces, even under the pretext of stopping the virus, could potentially also be used against the workers' movement if the government fears a backlash. Such a 'backlash', were it to develop, would almost certainly be based around demands for people to be put before profit - including fighting for an end to the cuts and privatisation that have ravaged our health service and left it unprepared for emergencies like this.
Chaos on the underground
In last night's statement, Johnson said that “the time has come for us all to do more”. This is all well and good, and we agree that people should all make an effort to do their bit. But how exactly can we trust a party that, for the last four decades, has overseen the wholesale privatisation of our railways, and cuts to London underground services - many of which were forced through by Johnson himself as Mayor of London - along with the gradual dismantling of our NHS. This will contribute massively to the overall death toll of the virus.
This reality was seen most nakedly in photos unearthed of people, forced to travel to work, crammed onto the London Underground today. Since the mid-90s, crowding on the railways has intensified year-on-year, as the companies have routinely failed to build extra carriages while passenger numbers increase. This rail rip-off has always threatened our health, but never more so than now!
Many workers will also be receiving mixed signals from the government and employers. Even with the lockdown underway, many companies hiring non-essential workers have forced their staff to continue attending work. One example, Sports Direct's Mike Ashley, eventually backed down from his decision to order staff into work after a public outcry at this reckless behaviour.
We cannot trust profit hungry bosses to decide what is essential or not. For them, making money is the only essential thing! Trade unions should discuss democratically and decide whether work needs to go ahead, organising the necessary action to defend workers who are forced to work in unsafe conditions, or to fight for full pay for those who are not working.
Many workers who can't survive on the £94/week Statutory Sick Pay will be forced to continue work – particularly those in self-employment. Blame for overcrowding on public transport rests entirely on the feet of the government and employers who, by denying the right to full sick pay for all workers, will be responsible for a huge inflation of the numbers infected and dead over the next period.
This demonstrates the inability of capitalism to coordinate a serious response to the COVID-19 crisis. Any system based on the hoarded ownership of wealth and production for profit will lead towards chaos in times of emergency like this.We need to organise now to make sure the working class is not forced to pay yet again for this crisis, and to fight for a socialist world where the needs of the majority are prioritised, instead of the profits of a few.
What we call for
Workers' control over any and all measures implemented to limit physical contact. Decisions on what jobs and services are deemed 'essential' should be decided by elected committees of trade unionists and community representatives.
A bail out for working people, not the mega-rich. Nationalise the banks and pharmaceutical industry, along with energy, telecommunications and major companies under democratic workers' control. Establish a socialist plan for the mass production of ventilators, testing kits and hand sanitiser, free at the point of use. No profits should be made from this crisis!
Personal Protective Equipment to be provided to all essential workers, particularly in the NHS. Scrap zero-hours contracts and end outsourcing.
Defence of our democratic rights. For workers' and community control over the police service, with ultimate say over hiring and firing.