Protecting the bosses
‘Stay alert’ seems to mean ‘Go to work even if it is unsafe’, writes Eddie Ford
The UK coronavirus death toll continues to make for grim reading. Once you take into account the almost 10,000 care-home residents who have died, and add the latest figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland, the total number of official UK deaths actually stands at over 40,000 - twice the figure that was considered a “good result” only a few months ago.1
Of course, the week was dominated by the government’s change in approach to Covid-19 - announced on May 10 by Boris Johnson from within the bowels of Downing Street. The endlessly repeated mantra of ‘Stay at home’ has been replaced by ‘Stay alert’, whilst ‘Protect the NHS’ has been junked in favour of ‘Control the virus’ - presumably on the basis that the prime minister believes that the national health service has now been successfully shielded from any prospect of being overwhelmed by coronavirus cases. Mothball the Nightingale hospitals and put the ventilators back in storage. Some on the right wing of the Tory Party, and the libertarian right in general, had become increasingly worried that the ‘Stay at home’ message had become too effective - making people terrified to venture out and thus crippling economic activity.
Anyway, Johnson requested - or instructed (it is not entirely clear which) - all those unable to do their job from home, which is the majority of workers, to return to work, but to keep adhering to social distancing guidelines. Keep two metres away and wash your hands. For many this is asking the impossible, whether due to thoughtless bosses, lack of basic facilities and personal protective equipment, or the very nature of the job itself. The prime minister also told these workers to “avoid” public transport, which is a virtual impossibility too if you live in London - doubly unfortunate if you are not able to obtain a proper mask (as opposed to wrapping a scarf around your face).
The changes, it seems, include a five-tier coronavirus warning system administered by a new “joint biosecurity centre”, modelled on the system used to announce the threat level from terrorism - ranging from green at level one to red at level five with the current status being four. That immediately suggests that easing the lockdown at this stage in time might not be entirely wise. Germany began easing restrictions two weeks ago after sustained pressure from leaders of the local states (Länder), resulting in the infamous ‘R’ value - the average number of people each person with the virus infects - quickly shooting up from 0.71 to 1.1, though the federal authorities at present do not seem unduly alarmed, as the actual scale of infections has dropped to less than 1,000 infections a day.2 Unlike the UK, alas, which has something like 20,000 infected every day - far fewer than at the peak of the outbreak, but still a large number. Regardless, dear leader Johnson will steer the nation through the crisis - the new ‘flexible’ system theoretically able to monitor increases in infection rates in different parts of the country with a view to adjusting restrictions throughout England on a local basis. That seems a very tall order, given that the testing regime is still woefully inadequate (the 100,000 target seems to have been forgotten, and currently it stands at fewer than 70,000 tests a day). If all goes to plan, which it almost certainly will not, a triumphant Boris Johnson will announce fairly shortly that the Covid threat level has gone from level four to three - open the champagne.
Newspaper headlines following Johnson’s pronouncements indicate that it was not exactly a stunning PR success - “divisive”, “confused”, “vague”, “dangerous”, “catastrophic”, etc. Ministers had to scuttle around media outlets, explaining what ‘Stay alert’ really means. Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, a flustered housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, attempted to clear up the situation - actually, he said, ‘Stay alert’ means staying at home “as much as possible” - something later repeated by the prime minister. Such ‘clarifications’, needless to say, only added to the confusion.
There was also puzzlement about when the changes would start to kick in. Everything Boris Johnson said from Downing Street indicated that it would be immediate, with workers returning to factories and construction sites the following morning - understandably inducing trepidation, if not panic, amongst many. Yet it fell to the hapless health secretary, Matt Hancock - fall guy in waiting - to explain that the new government guidelines will in fact apply from May 13, after the 50-page “roadmap” and necessary statutory instruments had been published. That would put into law the “baby steps” announced by Boris Johnson on TV at the weekend. Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are sticking to the original ‘Stay at home’ message, with a lot of liberalistic outrage about how Boris Johnson did not properly consult the devolved governments - the union is in peril.
Inevitably, the published roadmap introduced new contradictions and nonsense. For example, quite a big surprise in the changes were steps to restart the housing market in England, with people now allowed to visit estate or letting agents and view properties for sale or rent. This must now classify as an “essential” business - a splash in The Times reckoned 450,000 house moves had been frozen by the lockdown, and argued for a swift restart to sales, in the hope that it may limit the depth of the coming deep recession. Good luck with that. But the new rules do not stipulate how many people will be permitted to view a property, or how often, leading to the potentially absurd situation where people can now visit the homes of complete strangers to consider a house purchase, but not those of family members or close friends.
But the biggest concern by far about Johnson’s “roadmap” is that there are no enforceable safety standards for workers - the unions have been effectively bypassed. Nor is there any clarity about workers with childcare responsibilities, who may now feel pressured to get back to work. More or less everything is down to the good will and discretion of the bosses, which is a road to disaster. Are returning workers allowed to walk out if there is not adequate PPE or a generally unsafe working environment? Understandably, The Lancet medical journal carried a plea for the eight million with underlying health conditions to be exempted from Boris Johnson’s plans to get the country working again. It warned that easing the lockdown too quickly could see the Covid-19 death toll climbing up to 100,000 this year.
This suspicion seems amply confirmed by a very recent, yet in some ways surprising, study by the Office for National Statistics, based on an analysis of the 2,494 registered deaths involving coronavirus among workers aged 20 to 64 in England and Wales, up to and including April 20.3 As well as the finding that men are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than women, it shatters the myth that the virus is indiscriminate - killing everyone regardless of class or occupation. Back in reality, the survey shows that the lowest death toll has been amongst professionals with spacious accommodation and the highest among men working in low-skilled and manual occupations - and often going home to cramped living conditions.
Hence we discover that the highest death rate has been among security guards with 45.7 fatalities per 100,000 (63 actual deaths) - followed by taxi drivers and chauffeurs, bus and coach drivers, chefs, shop workers and, of course, staff in care homes and home carers. What will get people scratching their heads - especially after the endless headlines about NHS nurses and doctors being like “lambs to the slaughter” and so on - is that they are no more likely to die of the virus on average than anyone else. NHS healthcare workers, the survey states, “were not found to have higher rates of death involving Covid-19, when compared with the rate among those whose death involved Covid-19 of the same age and sex in the general population”. The ONS study may not be worthy of a Nobel Prize, but it tells you a lot politically and socially.
All this furthers emphasises that socialists should stress the possible danger to workers returning to their jobs without the necessary protection. Correctly, various unions and Labour MPs have castigated the government for putting the welfare of businesses over and above that of the working class. Jeremy Corbyn in parliament attacked Boris Johnson for giving the bosses “carte blanche to force people back to work without proper consideration of their health and safety”. He urged Johnson not to lift the lockdown “until it’s absolutely clear that we have the coronavirus crisis under control”, as it is “affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society the worst”. In the same vein, John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB union, said the ONS figures were “horrifying” and called for a pause on return to work until guidelines were in place. Similarly, RMT general secretary Mick Cash savaged the government for still not having convened a coronavirus safety forum for the transport sector.