The nefarious Daily Mail back in early May last year described the legitimate concerns of many people, including among its own readership, about a premature return to work as ‘coronophobia’! This word implies that people’s real fears for their own safety in a life-threatening pandemic which had already caused by that date at least 143, 730 deaths in the EU/EEA and the UK (to 8th May: source ECDC) is somehow on a par with arachnophobia.
Yet even the Mail’s own poll that week (1-8 May) found that “Around seven in 10 believe bus and train drivers, teachers, and medical staff should have the right to refuse to go back to work, even if the government says it is safe. Some 60% say the state should keep covering a proportion of people’s wages even if in theory they should be able to resume their jobs.” It seems that the Mail’s readership (amongst whom the poll was conducted) wasn’t swallowing the paper’s own medicine. In fact, workers should never have been threatened with being returned to unsafe places of work: a fact which was only officially disseminated at the beginning of January this year when the National Education Union advised teachers and support staff in Swindon and Wiltshire to invoke section 44 of the Employment Rights Act of 1996. Section 44 clearly “provides employees with the right to withdraw from and to refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe. Employees are entitled to remain away from the workplace (e.g. stay at home) if – in their opinion – the prevailing circumstances represent a real risk of serious and imminent danger which they could not be expected to avert.”
The background to the NEU stance was the reopening of schools in January 2021, proposed by Boris Johnson on 30th December, ignoring warnings from scientists that by so doing many people would be at risk as pupils return to schools. The PM’s response was, “Schools are safe, the problem is not the schools. Send your children, send your family to school in the normal way, absolutely right to do.”
Professor Susan Michie immediately responded that “Boris Johnson says today that schools are safe. This is untrue & prevents the necessary measures that need to be taken to make them safe eg. ventilation & distancing (which requires space in unused buildings & extra staff).”
Within days the government had retreated before the growing revolt from teachers, backed this time by the NEU, and parents (not all, as the news reports on TV showed) and announced the closure of schools from the 4th January. Only the day before, Johnson had repeated his sincere conviction that returning to school was safe.
None of the issues which prompted SAGE scientists to urge against premature relaxing of restrictions then have since been resolved. We now face renewed calls for an ending of lockdown and a commitment from government to make this the last one. The calls and continuing pressure on government are led by the neo-liberal lobby against the lockdowns, the so-called Covid Recovery Group (CRG) made up of 70 Tory MPs, with members such as (Sir) Graham Brady and jingoist politician Mark Francois.
It is interesting to note that this group which voted (at the time it consisted of 50 MPs) on 1st December against the introduction of the tier system to meet the already alarming rise in infections, was joined in the vote by 5 other Tory MPs and 15 Labour MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn. This anti-restriction vote came as the savage hike in infections and deaths peaked in January of 2021. Fatally for many, it also coincided with the government’s “easing up” over the festive season.
It was during the easing up on festivities that Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s brother, lead anti-lockdown protests, one at Speakers Corner on New Years Day, defiantly unmasked. The 73-year-old has become one of the leaders of the movement against anti-Covid restrictions in reaction to the escalation of the deadly virus. The “Freedom over Fear” slogan on one of the banners at the Hyde Park protest illustrates a dovetailing collusion with the right-wing libertarian movement developing globally along similar populist lines.
It is interesting, if unedifying, to note that Francoist generals in Spain and populist lefties in Britain are singing from the same hymn sheet. The more fashionable parts of Madrid were host to protests against anti-SARS measures which were adopted by the Podemos/Socialist government there last year. They had the backing of the “WhatsApp Generals”, a far-right group which advocated a violent return to Francoist fascism via WhatsApp messaging last year. One message enthused over the execution of “26 million” opponents of Francoism.
What a hotch-potch/rag bag of disseminate elements. It’s hardly that any of the measures introduced by governments in Europe, as here in the U.K. have been extreme, given the threat posed by the virus. The original sin of ignoring the WHO’s urgent request of governments to follow a strict “test, trace and isolate” strategy has led to the inevitable catastrophic situation globally. In fact, the initial state of denial (remember Johnson’s “take it on the chin” speech?) allowed the virus to burn through the most vulnerable communities in our society: care home residents, both the elderly and disabled, BAME people, especially those on the front line in hospitals and care homes, public transport workers, workers in a whole variety of crowded workplaces, school staff, supermarket workers and shop assistants. The editorial of the BMJ magazine (British Medical Journal) on the 4th February is quite explicit over the collective guilt of the British government in the avoidable deaths, or “social murder” as they reference it, of so many people in the U.K. “When politicians and experts say that they are willing to allow tens of thousands of premature deaths for the sake of population immunity or in the hope of propping up the economy, is that not premeditated and reckless indifference to human life?”
There have been exceptions across the world. To name one, on the news recently, New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden has announced a new lockdown for Auckland after just three new cases of infection were notified. The “hard and early” approach has been effective. To date, the country is 172nd in the table of total deaths, and more pertinently 189th in the table of deaths per 1 million.
Johnson’s late backtracking on prematurely ending the first lockdown met with disapproval from Sajid Javid who, in his first TV interview since resigning, said he is more “concerned about the health of the banks” and “that when it comes to opening up, you want to go as far and as quick as you can.”
The same thinking is behind the renewed attacks on continuing the lockdown by the neo-liberals and alt-right of CRG this week. It is not enough to argue, as does Tory David Davis, that measures such as general lockdowns are ineffective in comparison with “an extremely focused test, track, and isolate policy. At the moment, no element of this policy is fully operational in the UK.” The latter part of his statement is indeed true. The failure of the U.K. government, along with many European states, to implement such a strategy swiftly, as urged by WHO, has undoubtedly led to the present situation; but this means that failing to impose other restrictions now would add to not diminish the scale of this pandemic. To yield to the demands of the neo-liberals, rightist libertarians and their populist left allies would be to place the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society, including BAME people, factory workers, transport workers and many others in dire jeopardy. Many from these groupings have already died in the first wave; families and friends have barely had time to mourn them. They have now been joined by daily deaths of over a thousand throughout January this year.
One irony in the ongoing assault on protecting lives is the use of the vaccine programme as an argument for an early easing of safety restrictions. This was made by David Davis in a TV news interview last week, where he argued for ending lockdown on the basis of the vaccine programme: “you wouldn’t do it ( have a lockdown) for flu” after such vaccinations.
The vaccine programme is endorsed by WHO and is to be welcomed, notwithstanding the problems presented by mutations to the SARS protein spike and the lack of transparency in many of the government’s differing claims regarding levels of protection against new variants. However, any weapons in the war on the SARS virus are vital. The choice is existential; your survival may depend on it.
None of these people in the “unholy alliance” appear to be concerned with the minimal rights of working people to protect their lives; even though these are categorically enshrined in employment law. This was clearly demonstrated in the lack of support for London bus drivers by their unions or the Labour Party as the pandemic got underway. In March and April last year, Sadiq Khan continued to tell transport workers that face masks and other PPE were “not required,” although bus drivers were dying from Covid-19. A joint letter issued by Unite with TfL on 9th April pledged industrial cooperation and insisted that PPE such as face masks were “not recommended”. It was only the grassroots actions of the drivers themselves that led to any implementation of safety measures later on. As the deaths of drivers mounted, and some drivers taped off the seats around their cabs or attempted to seal their cabin safety screens, they were threatened with action by the bus companies and received no support for protecting themselves in this way from their unions. By the end of May 2020, 33 bus workers, including 29 drivers, had died from Covid-19. Almost all were from the BAME community.
The ruthless social-darwinist model of society, which sacrifices working people to the demands of the “economy”, or in effect the wealth elite, is not negotiable according to Sajid Javid. In the interview given shortly after his replacement, he said that although many things will change as a result of this crisis… “one thing that shouldn’t change is our understanding of the economic model that leads to the highest growth rate possible which is still going to be a free-enterprise, low tax, competitive economy.” Never mind the nurses, doctors, care-workers, bus drivers and other workers who have already tragically lost their lives.
In fact, the reverse is true: the most vital change that this crisis has revealed is the need to dismantle the power of the capitalist moguls, whose social model, which Javid is defending, is the selfish subjugation of society to their own greed. Not only has this model already caused the deaths of huge numbers of people through environmental pollution of the air and sea but has now clearly shown an inability and unwillingness to deal with a humanitarian crisis on the scale of the SARS CoV 2 pandemic, which has killed at least two and a half million in a little over twelve months. To leave the future to them would ensure the extinction of masses of “expendable people” in a world fashioned on the principles of a vast economic concentration camp, into which the enthusiasts for their version of “liberty” would have us march.
Image by Banksy