Covid infection rates are on the rise across the country, with some areas experiencing levels of infection five or ten times what would have triggered intervention a couple of months ago.
Without any definite plan for fighting the coronavirus, Boris Johnson has devised a three-tier system of regional and local alert levels. He claimed it would make things clearer and simpler. It has had the opposite effect and created a new crisis for the government.
The Liverpool City Region was the first to have been allocated to Tier Three, where household-to-household contact is banned, pubs and bars must close unless they serve food. Where businesses are forced to close, the government will compensate employees but only at two-thirds of normal pay. Liverpool City Area Mayor Steve Rotheram and Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson protested at their inclusion in Tier Three, but staying in Tier Two would have meant no compensation at all, so they reluctantly accepted it.
By Friday 16 October, councils in Lancashire had reluctantly agreed to be included in Tier Three in exchange for £42m of support: £12m for track and trace and enforcement, and £30m in business support. Confusingly, however, gyms and leisure centres will remain open, unlike in Liverpool and other areas of the North West pushed into Tier Three. This means that they will be open in Chorley but closed in Ormskirk, just a few miles down the road. Such is the shambolic nature of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, has publicly opposed pressure for his area to submit to Tier Three restrictions on the basis that the financial package is insufficient. At a press conference on Thursday he said: ‘They are asking us to gamble our jobs, homes and businesses – on a Tier Three strategy their experts say might not work’. He has demanded 80% compensation along the lines of Sunak’s furlough scheme, plus further support for local track and trace systems.
Burnham’s stance has generated a great deal of support in the region, even from some of the Tory MPs sitting on tiny majorities in ‘red wall’ seats, and more widely on social media. Finally, it is felt, someone is prepared to stand up to the government. There is widespread disgust at the cavalier way this government has treated elected representatives. There is a Northern regionalist tinge to some of the mood, with working class people in the North seeing these measures as being devised and enforced from London without consideration. This is understandable, given the deprivation experienced in many Northern towns, and especially the cramped, poor quality housing stock in towns like Oldham and Burnley which have proved ideal breeding grounds for the virus. The frustration has become palpable in Manchester, where a mystery member of the public spray painted the line “the North is not a petri dish” on a wall at the city’s central Piccadilly Gardens, to mass publicity.
The support Burnham’s stance has garnered illustrates perfectly what Socialist Alternative has always argued, through a decade of austerity when Labour councils meekly accepted Tory cuts. We stressed the fact that that a single act of opposition would call forth mass support, which could be turned into a campaign to defeat the government.
The question is: where will Burnham take his defiant stance? As a former Labour health minister under the government of Tony Blair, he presided over the development of PFI (Private Finance Initiative) hospitals and bed reductions, which fed into the process of NHS privatisation that the Tories continue to this day. He famously snubbed Jeremy Corbyn at a Manchester Labour election rally in 2017. He makes an unlikely rebel and some even see this as part of an opportunist bid for the future Labour leadership, ‘taking Labour back to its Northern roots’. But the ultimate question that counts is: what he does next? Will he do a deal over compensation, when the difference between 67% the government is offering and his demand of 80% is not so great? Why not demand 100% compensation for workers laid off by the actions of the government? Will he ditch his demand for local control of track and trace, and financial support to run it properly?
If Burnham is serious about defeating the government he will need to mobilise the labour movement. He has unanimous support from local council leaders. Yet his press conference was relatively low key and attended by leaders of only two of the ten local authorities. We would need to see rallies with all the leaders present, regional TUC and trades councils mobilised in support, individual unions like Unite and BFAWU who represent the workers who will lose their jobs or be expected to survive on 2/3rds of their already low wages. A socially distanced demonstration through the streets of Manchester, deputations to Downing Street,and many more actions will be needed if the government is to be dislodged. To do that will require a clear set of demands for workers to get behind: 100% of normal pay if laid off; trade union control of Covid-security measures where pubs or restaurants are open; full sick pay for workers required to self-isolate; fully funded and mass community testing under trade union control, as well as immediate nationalisation of test and trace, kicking out Serco, Deloitte and the rest of the vulture companies feeding off our health service.
The need for a fight back
Burnham’s defiance is significant and it has struck a chord with many. This shouldn’t be a surprise in the context of Keir Starmer and a Labour Party leadership that has failed miserably to hold the government to account for its response to the pandemic. There is clear anger against the Tories and the rottenness of the capitalist system; Burnham has become the unlikely conduit for that anger. It’s not excluded that it could lead to a revolt on the streets. The frustrations experienced under wearisome restrictions can turn into anger as we have seen in the Spanish state when the national government attempted to impose a new lockdown on the regional government in Madrid. At the moment the movement against restrictions in Liverpool and Manchester is limited to a handful of conspiracy theory supporters and anti-vaxxers who either claim the virus does not truly exist or does not pose any serious harm, which is an utterly dangerous idea that the workers movement must be prepared to strongly resist. A lead from Burnham and the local trade union movement could seize the initiative away from the conspiracy theorists, reactionaries and right-wingers, launching a movement to get rid of the Tories and the profit system which threatens our health.
- We need a mass trade union led campaign to fight for safe conditions, and 100% full pay if people are unable to work due to restrictions or self isolation
- Labour Local Authorities must demand and organise for more resources from the central government to fight Covid, and Tory austerity. No more cuts to our services
- Full democratic and public ownership and control of Track and Trace – kick out Serco and all the profiteers
- Workers control over all health and safety measures.
- A co-ordinated fight against Johnson and the Tories – they can’t be trusted to fight Covid. The next step will be to form Conferences of Resistance to discuss how to unite struggles, from pay in the NHS, to racism and the struggle to address the building climate emergency
- End the profit driven capitalist system that endangers our health – time to fight for socialism