How the government should protect working people from COVID-19

Johnnie Hunter, YCL General Secretar

The first cases of Covid-19 in Britain were reported on January 31 2020. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified the virus as a pandemic on March 11 2020 and immediately called for countries to take “urgent and aggressive action” to combat the spread of the virus based on the model adopted by the Chinese government.

Despite the significant and crucial passage of time, repeated warnings by the NHS and WHO, the response of Boris Johnson’s Tory government has been criminally slow. It is only in the last few days that they have begun to adopt meaningful measures such as closing schools and workplaces.

This is despite the fact that Britain’s trade union movement has been calling for these precautions for weeks. Even now, a myriad of vital measures which the Communist Party has consistently demanded are yet to be implemented.

Healthcare

  • The urgent provision of protective equipment and specialist training to all frontline staff.
  • Building new intensive care hospitals and requisitioning the resources and facilities of the private health sector and the armed forces.
  • A far more rigorous testing and quarantine regime for those with symptoms and their traceable contacts, including comprehensive testing of all people arriving and leaving Britain.
  • State control of the pharmaceutical industry to ensure that production and research target the crisis, that shareholder greed does not exploit it or hike the cost of life-saving medicines.
  • State direction of companies manufacturing materials for public purchase (soap, anti-bacterial gel, alcohol etc) essential to combatting the spread of the virus.

Planning and production

  • National and regional forums with representatives of central and local government, the NHS and trade unions to coordinate, plan and ensure the implementation of anti-crisis measures.
  • A coordinated strategy to ensure the distribution of vital goods and services to the population, especially vulnerable groups.
  • Emergency measures to eliminate homelessness and provide essential care.
  • Emergency legislation to ensure the rationing of purchases of essential goods including medicines, disinfectant products and foodstuffs.
  • Heavy penalties for companies or individuals engaged in illicit market activities such as price hiking and corporate profiteering.
  • State control of the arms industry to develop and manufacture medical equipment and other necessities, including the billions currently squandered on nuclear and other weapons.

Britain’s communists are clear about why the Tories have failed to implement the measures needed to protect working people. They wanted to maintain “normality” for as long as possible to protect the value of shares in the City of London, which have seen historic losses. They don’t want to interfere with the profits of the companies, banks and hedge funds which fund their party and whose directors and lobbyists they take their orders from.

While the economic measures announced so far including guarantees of pay are to be welcomed, they are too little and come too late. Tens of thousands of workers have already been sacked or laid off. The unclear timeframe and mechanism for guarantee payments make it inevitable that tens of thousands more will be laid off in the coming weeks. Communists are calling for a comprehensive effort to protect jobs and salaries.

Economic measures

  • A nationwide ban on all layoffs and redundancies.
  • Full pay protection for all employees and no requirement to use annual leave during self-isolation.
  • Guaranteed reinstatement for all employees already laid off or made redundant.
  • Fines for employers who fail to comply and damages for affected employees.
  • A guaranteed minimum income for the self-employed.
  • Emergency legislation abolishing Universal Credit and providing full benefits to all unemployed, substantially increasing statutory sick pay and child benefit.
  • Free childcare and creche services for front-line workers.
  • Increased financial support for small businesses.
  • Emergency legislation to force insurers to cover lost income due to the crisis backdated to March 11 2020.

Following a dangerous delay schools have been closed and exams cancelled but students need concrete steps for real clarity and support.

Education

  • Maintain free school meals and social work contact for vulnerable young people.
  • Ensure students’ bursaries are maintained and write off student loan repayments.
  • More support and clear guidance for students missing exams to ensure they are not disadvantaged in progressing to further and higher education.
  • More online resources for students missing lessons to maintain their studies.
  • Mental health support for students and young people affected by the crisis.

At the same time, the left must oppose any measures that stifle political criticism, increase state surveillance, prolong the government’s term in office or normalise the presence of uniformed armed forces on the streets.

We must also resist attempts by the mainstream media and political parties to pass off the coming economic crisis as a result of Covid-19. There were already signs of the coming crisis long before. It will be yet another cyclical capitalist crisis. They will work to shift the burden on to workers through austerity, just as they did in 2008. But only if they are allowed to do so.

The anti-people and anti-democratic face of the European Union has been further exposed. It has failed to protect the continent. It has abandoned Italy. Even now the EU is seeking to prevent government emergency economic measures as “breaches of state aid rules,” including the UK government’s business rates holiday for the retail, leisure and hospitality industries.

The Covid-19 crisis demonstrates the nature of this Tory government and the capitalist system. They are unable and unwilling to safeguard working people. It is working people who can and must save ourselves from this crisis. At this time, we of course must salute the courage and dedication of our NHS and other front-line workers.

The call of Britain’s communists is clear:

“Fight together now for all measures necessary to protect the people! Be vigilant in the defence of our democratic freedoms and of our right to struggle for a better society and socialism!

Johnnie Hunter, YCL General Secretary