It is impossible to predict the extent of Covid-19’s impact, however it is almost certain an epidemic will be declared in the United Kingdom.
Previously missing in action, Boris Johnson emerged this week with a “battle plan”. Initially calling for good hand hygiene and emergency legislation to pack large numbers of children into small spaces, the Tories’ strategy has since evolved into four punchy words: contain, delay, research, mitigate.
This is a strategy doomed to failure because a decade of austerity has left Britain and the world totally underprepared for major pandemics.
Far from being contained, infections are released if workers are compelled to leave their homes every day, travel and work alongside others, in order to have enough money to survive until the end of the month. Far from being delayed, its spread is hastened by workers who fear disciplinary action or worse for taking time off for sickness or self-isolation. Far from mitigating the impact of Covid-19, the over-stretched, under-staffed National Health Service is already at breaking point.
On an average day, 94% of NHS beds already have patients in them. Not all these patients are sick, but due to cuts in local government and a social care system run by private, profit seeking companies, many people are stuck in hospitals waiting to be discharged.
Ambulance services are tasked with transferring patients to and from hospitals for Covid-19 screening. Yet paramedics are already reporting a crisis, with 120,000 patients having to wait over half an hour for urgent medical attention – a 40% increase on last year.
Coronavirus affects the respiratory system, making it harder for people to breathe. While for many it will be mild, people severely affected may need to be put on ventilators in Intensive Care. With just over 4000 ‘critical care’ beds in the country, even by conservative estimates, demand is likely to far outstrip supply several times over. In a recent interview with Andrew Marr, Health Secretary Matt Hancock flippantly claimed this could be doubled if need be.
Aside from the lack of physical space and suitable equipment, the NHS in England is 100,000 staff short, including 43,000 registered nurses. The removal of the NHS bursary has seen a steady decline in the number of student nurses and the desperate plea for retired staff to come back seems to have fallen on demoralised ears. Hancock’s vision, without massive investment and education, will likely involve the sickest people being cared for in dangerously under-staffed, makeshift pseudo-Intensive Care Units with inappropriate isolation facilities.
In addition, the culture of presenteeism, sick workers clocking in for fear of the consequences, persists in the NHS, potentially turning overstretched staff into “super-spreaders”.
NHS workers have certain protections as a result of rights won through trade unions. Not so the workers at Wilko, and millions like them. Despite increasing profits, workers at Wilko face the prospect of their sick pay being slashed. Nearly 5 million workers in low paid, insecure work have no right to sick pay beyond the pittance of ‘statutory minimum’ at all. An estimated half a million workers are forced by greedy bosses to register as ‘self-employed’, entitling them to nothing.
The army of low-paid workers in the care sector and in the gig economy, delivering food and driving Ubers, cannot afford to self-isolate. Covid-19 will be spread by the daily struggle to pay for existence which is life for millions of workers in Britain. However, isolation in all but name may be imposed on many, especially women workers, as schools and childcare facilities face closure. School closures will disproportionately affect women, who make up 77% of NHS workers. Under those circumstances, workers would need to collectively organise to provide childcare for emergency service workers and carers.
The Tories are seeking to pass laws which remove rules for teacher-to-pupil ratios in the event of staff sickness. This is not out of concern for children’s education or for working parents. The only way big businesses continue to make profit is through workers, working. Their fear of the coming recession being brought forward, because parents are unable to work, is greater than their concern for public safety. Forcing schools to stay open with fewer staff will only exacerbate the spread of the virus. However it is the logic of the capitalist system which puts the wealth of the few ahead of the health of the many.
The capitalist market is driven not by human need but by private profit. Prices have rocketed on Personal Protective Equipment and it is sold to the highest bidder, not to those who are most in need, creating a 40% shortfall in stocks. Despite huge advances in human understanding of viruses and vaccines, their progress is frustrated globally by the capitalist market being the means to research, develop, execute and distribute goods and services, including healthcare. The pharmaceutical companies have failed to build on basic research into a vaccine after the SARs outbreak nearly 20 years ago. Jason Schwartz, an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, states: ‘Had we not set the SARS-vaccine-research program aside, we would have had a lot more of this foundational work that we could apply to this new, closely related virus.’ But Big Pharma preferred to develop more profitable repeat prescription drugs for chronic conditions.
The weakness of the capitalist economy has been highlighted by the outbreak, sending global markets into meltdown. It looks increasingly likely that Covid-19 will act as a trigger to a long-incubated world recession. Those to blame, the bosses of the world’s largest companies, will attempt to wash their hands clean of responsibility by passing the cost of their latest crisis onto the shoulders of working-class people.
2,400 workers have been laid off by the airline Flybe after the Government stalled on a bailout loan. Flybe workers are not responsible for the collapse of their employer, but they are being forced to pay for it. The company could and should have been brought into public ownership and integrated into a planned public transport system.
The madness of the free market has also infected the NHS. While patients are treated in corridors and Covid-19 threatens to fill hospitals to breaking point, entire buildings constructed under the Private Finance Initiative lie empty or partially used. These facilities and all parts of the NHS which have been given over to the private sector, should be taken back into public hands with immediate effect and used to provide care and treatment.
Expanding physical capacity is meaningless, however, without the staff to run additional beds. We need a mass investment program in health education, reinstating the bursary at Living Wage levels and open to all healthcare students and without means testing. NHS workers have seen the value of their salary reduced by 14% since 2010. An immediate pay increase to reverse the last decade of austerity is necessary to stem the current haemorrhaging of staff.
Further, the NHS needs control over its own medical equipment and supplies. It can no longer be at the mercy of the capitalist market to provide essentials, such as ventilators, hand sanitisers and Personal Protective Equipment. We need a publicly owned, democratically accountable service, run by and for working class people, with the capacity to produce what it needs to provide high quality care for all.
After a decade of austerity, millions of workers cannot afford to take time off sick. Where employers have attempted to roll back sick pay, trade unions should respond with coordinated industrial action. Unions must launch an immediate campaign demanding full pay for every worker, from day one, with no exceptions. This must be backed up with trade union recognition in every workplace. There is also an urgent need to push back against draconian sickness policies, designed to coerce workers into turning up when ill and to fight to ensure adequate infection control precautions are taken in every workplace.
Full support must be given to workers who decide to close down their workplace for public health reasons. Big business bosses and their Tory servants cannot be trusted to make these decisions in the collective interest of working people. The Tory Government will seek to use Covid-19 as an excuse to implement regressive emergency laws, clamping down on democratic freedoms such as the right to public assembly. Any attempt to do so must be met with mass demonstrations of resistance
The Covid-19 outbreak is propelling the world into further crisis. Capitalist nations are scrambling to try and address and resolve the many and complex issues. They will completely fail to safeguard the lives and interests of working-class people and our communities. The whole issue is yet another illustration of the need for a new world socialist system.