Boris Johnson’s latest update on the government’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, attempting to outline a ‘road map’ toward moving the country out of lockdown, has left many people in Britain confused. According to a YouGov poll, only 30% of people feel they understand the new slogan of “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”. The statement on Sunday has rightly been criticised for its self-contradictory nature, but behind the wishy-washy sentiment of ‘staying alert’ lies the worrying first steps toward prematurely forcing millions of people back to work in unsafe conditions – acceding to the demands of big business.
The government’s new guidance is to “actively encourage” workers in sectors such as construction and manufacturing to return to work, alongside others that are unable to work from home. People in these sectors could be expected to begin going into work again as early as this week. This announcement comes as new data indicates that low-paid and blue collar workers are already at significantly greater risk of falling ill from and dying as a result of the virus.
Meanwhile there has been no binding guidance given to employers on how to make workplaces safe in the era of Covid-19. Nor has there been any explanation given as to how such a reopening will avoid a surge in crowds on public transport – which has already shown signs of becoming unsafe this morning. Transport unions including the RMT have issued statements today calling for key transport networks such as the London Underground to be shut down should social-distancing measures become impossible. If the bosses are not prepared to take such steps, workers will have to take matters into their own hands through collective action.
Alongside this, tentative plans were announced to begin reopening schools in June, followed by the hospitality industry in July. For workers and young people facing a return to these potentially dangerous workplace conditions, this will be disturbing news. Even as the Prime Minister claimed we had ‘averted a catastrophe’, 4,000 new cases of Covid-19 were announced, and the death toll climbed to 31,855. With the transmission rate of the virus still unknown, and with continued shortages of testing and PPE, it is clear that we are far from a safe situation for most people to return to work.
Johnson’s announcement comes in the wake of increasing pressure from the cabinet and the Tories more broadly to reopen the economy. Ex-chancellor Sajid Javid is the latest to join figures such as Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove in the call to ‘run things hot’ – to revitalise the profits of big business as soon as possible, even if it means risking the lives of working people. Despite the Prime Minister’s claim to be driven by science rather than ‘economic necessity’, these plans – as well as the nature and the speed of their implementation – will be a reflection of the pressure from figures like these, as well as the capitalist class as a whole which the Tory government represents. As we enter a historic economic downturn, the aim of the ruling class is to resume business activity and to end the massive subsidies they have been forced to pay out in order to prevent outright economic collapse.
Similar steps to end shutdowns have also taken place over the last few weeks in other countries. However, the threat of a 2nd spike in cases presents a serious risk if workplaces are reopened too early, especially if they do not meet adequate standards of PPE and social distancing. Concerns have already been raised over new cases in China and Germany as these countries have eased restrictions.
Shut until it is safe!
Under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, workers have a right to refuse to enter a workplace they feel is unsafe. For the workers’ movement, this presents an important opportunity to oppose the Tories’ plans. Beyond the public statements expressing concerns they have so far produced, the TUC should be leading a mass campaign of walkouts against premature and unsafe workplace reopenings. Trade unions such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and National Education Union (NEU) have announced that they will support any members taking such action. But it should not be left down to individual workers or small groups to make these calls. It’s vital that such actions are organised and coordinated nationally – including across different sectors. What’s more, if workers in unionised workplaces take action, this can spread rapidly, drawing currently unorganised sections of the workforce into a mass struggle. it. Even in the absence of clear leadership coming from the union tops, workers can still take a lead from the level of the workplace itself. It is important that this is done collectively, rather than risking jobs on an individual basis. If workplace action is taken, workers will have to demand the union back them up.
The threat of a premature reopening of business shows the need for workers control over when and how such a process would take place in order to ensure the safety of workers, and by extension the community as a whole. If businesses cannot be trusted to protect the lives of their employees, they should be taken into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control and management. Rather than being dictated by the pressures of the capitalist market, an economy based on democratic public ownership would allow workers to genuinely put their health and safety first.