Updated: Mar 26
By Tom Barker, Socialist Alternative National Committee
One week since the World Health Organisation belatedly declared a global pandemic, the Covid-19 virus has spread to 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people. We now sit at the bottom of a very steep curve which experts believe could claim the lives of around a quarter of a million people in this country alone.
After a decade of austerity, the NHS is woefully unprepared to fight the coronavirus. There is currently a national staffing shortage of more than 100,000 workers. We have one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds compared with other high-income countries and we have only a fraction of the intensive care beds found in France or Germany.
All this before the Covid-19 outbreak! Even Jeremy Hunt – the hated former Health Secretary who for six long years oversaw dramatic cuts to our NHS services – is openly critical of the government’s handling of coronavirus. Boris Johnson’s government is failing on every front, but Hunt’s hypocrisy is still beyond comparison.
Tory policy over the last decade has been to keep cutting the number of beds and to cut hospital capacity, meanwhile farming more and more services out to the private sector. The deadly risk this poses for working-class people is now brought sharply into focus. As this article goes to press, Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow has declared a “critical incident” because they have run out of acute beds due to Covid-19 admissions and are now turning away those in dire need!
What the coronavirus crisis clearly shows is the serious dangers of planning for minimum need. The NHS, as with all our services, needs to have slack built into it – with funding and planning which can enable it to deal with national emergencies. The crisis also shows why free, publicly provided health care is not just desirable, but an absolute necessity.
The GMB union, which represents NHS staff, is rightly calling on Johnson’s government to “take action in Parliament” in order to get the “necessary legal powers to requisition the beds of private sector hospitals across the UK.” This is absolutely correct! But it is not enough to simply place demands on this government of the rich, which has already proven itself to be completely ineffective in the face of this crisis.
Trade unions must begin to mobilise their members in support of such demands. We need to fight for real funding for the NHS, decent pay and conditions for its staff, and for frontline workers to be given full control of planning. We need to see the taking over private hospital beds (of which there are around 10,000 nationally) – without handing over a penny of public money to the profit-hungry privateers. Nut we also need the government to go further, requisitioning private hospitals themselves, as well as other suitable buildings that can be used to expand capacity.
Medical workers in the private sector should immediately be seconded over to the NHS and a programme of fast-track training should be initiated for workers with basic care and health skills – with the oversight of trade unions representing health staff – so they can assist in fighting the pandemic. All privatised cleaning and ancillary services must also be brought back into the public sector. The trade unions must lead in this process and make it clear that compensation for shareholders should only be paid on the basis of proven need!
The coronavirus outbreak starkly illustrates the necessity of rationally planning of the economy. It shows why cooperation, not competition, is vital to ensuring the world’s health. Globally, there are currently at least fifteen drug companies that are separately researching and testing coronavirus vaccines!
If these companies were to work together, then we would be a good way closer to developing a vaccine and producing it fast enough, and in the quantities that are required. But it is not in the nature of capitalism for big business to cooperate. No, the law of the ‘free market’ is competition, with each firm independently racing to find the cure which they then hope to monetise!
After the SARS epidemic in 2003, which claimed the lives of around 800 people, and which at one point looked set to develop into a global emergency, there was initially a flood of funding from capitalist governments into research into vaccines. But work that began to test existing drugs, to see if they were effective against SARS, a virus closely related to Covid-19, was abandoned when that threat faded and, with it, the prospect of financial profit. Had this work been continued we may not be facing this crisis today. The pharmaceutical companies should be nationalised now, under democratic workers’ control and management. This way we could ensure that human need is prioritised over profit.
Our health service also faces a massive shortage of ventilators, respiratory equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other resources needed by health workers. The response to this shortage from Public Health England so far? Downgrade the guidelines to say therapy units and high dependency units. In Leicester, there are reports that hospital that full protective equipment including “FFP3” respirator masks, gowns, visor, goggles and gloves are now only needed for staff working in intensive care and intensive staff are being supplied with FFP3 masks only for confirmed cases of coronavirus and surgical masks for suspected cases. This is despite the fact that evidence suggests surgical masks are completely inadequate protection for against health workers against contracting the virus!
Moreover, in a sign of just how out of his depth Johnson is, the Tories only approached manufacturers to make ventilators for the NHS as late as last weekend. But why should private companies like this be making a killing from this crisis and why should working-class people foot the bill? Factories used for producing non-essential goods, including tech and defence must, where possible, be repurposed for public use in order to produce ventilators, PPE and other equipment.
According to local media reports in Chengdu, China, the maker of the new J-20 stealth fighter jet, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, has already repurposed part of its factory to design a mask production line. It is also reported that more than 2,500 companies in China have reportedly started making masks, among them 700 technology companies. Similar works could be carried out here. But what should not be replicated is the anti-democratic and anti-worker approach of the Chines regime. Instead workers’ committees must be established in order to oversee the repurposing of factories and to coordinate the running of production in a way that avoids the inefficiencies of the capitalist market.
Social care in crisis
Since 2010, central government funding for local councils has been cut by more than 50%, stripping public services to the bone. With poverty on the increase due to a decade of stagnating wages, spiralling costs of living, and increased casualisation of working conditions (with close to 1million people on zero hour contracts), more and more people have come to depend on an ever-dwindling pool of services. This, along with increased privatisation, has left social care in ruins, with many people cared for in the community, including by families and friends - often with infrequent access to health workers and district nurses. The demands of social-distancing and the protection of the vulnerable makes such arrangements – which will already have been putting a strain on millions of families – not only impossible but potentially dangerous.
In order to address this, local councils need to conduct emergency audits of social care capacity to understand what is required. The Tories’ slowness and prevarication in dealing with this crisis has left many workers extremely angry. Public pressure and threatened economic collapse has already forced the Tories release to release very significant sums of money to prevent a total collapse. Similar pressure could be applied – especially if this question were boldly taken up by the Labour movement – for local councils to demand the funds needed for safe social care provision. This could be used to aid a rapid expansion of residential and home help services to relieve pressure on acute hospitals.
The Covid-19 pandemic is just one of the many reasons why we need to break with the chaos of the ‘free market’, and build a rationally planned economy based on cooperation, rather than competition, and human need, not financial profit for big business. Join Socialist Alternative in the fight for the socialist transformation of society.