The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ is often attributed to the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus in around 1500. Today it is a fundamental principle of modern healthcare. But it is a principle that has been conspicuously absent in the Tories handling of COVID.
Back in March, preventative measures to stem the spread of infections were taken too late. When other countries were locking down, super spreader Boris Johnson was touring hospitals, sharing wet handshakes with staff and patients; the Cheltenham Festival was allowed to go ahead between March 10 and 13, with more than 150,000 packed into stands. Even though they knew the infection was spreading unchecked in the community, it was still more than a week before the government shut the pubs and schools, and 11 days before the fuller draconian lockdown was brought in. Had the government acted earlier, the extent of this lockdown could easily have been avoided.
When the infection rate began to ease, the Tories prematurely rushed toward an overly wide reopening the economy, even when it was clear the threat was still imminent. New research now links Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme with 8-17% of newly detected infection clusters today. In October, apparently having learned nothing from all of this, the government ignored the advice of its own scientists who called for a ‘circuit breaker’; only when faced with the prospect of a ‘worse-case scenario’ situation did they impose another lockdown, despite promising never to do this again.
A key preventative measure throughout these many months was always going to be a properly functioning track and trace programme. The Tories promised us a ‘world beating’ system by June 1. We never needed a ‘world beating’ system, we just needed one that worked. Now, close to the end of the year, we don’t even have this.
With preventative measures failing and a second wave of COVID infections sweeping across the country, treatment by NHS workers will, for many, be the last line of defence. But NHS workers are not machines. They are human beings, many of whom are still traumatised by the first wave of the pandemic. They are also vulnerable to the virus. Globally, the nurse death toll from COVID has now matched that recorded in the First World War, despite figures only being available from less than a quarter of countries.
The strain that these experiences have placed on NHS staff is palpable within our hospitals; it is also compounded by the absence of any real political opposition to the Tories, either politically or industrially. After many months of praising the Tories approach and promising to support whatever the government did, Starmer’s Labour has now taken to characterising Boris Johnson as a bumbling incompetent. Actual political criticism from Starmer’s Labour is nowhere to be heard – giving the impression that Labour have nothing to offer but the same, only more capable.
But was it incompetence that led to the death of 72 people at Grenfell Tower in 2017? Or was it a callousness which comes from supporting a system which places private profit above human life? In reality, the Tories have acted faithfully in the interests of sections of British capitalism, whether by acceding to demands to reopen the economy before the infection was under control, or by handing over multibillion pound contracts to private corporations to run COVID response services, without even the pretence of tendering.
As the trade unions are not currently providing a lead and as the crisis in the NHS deepens, it will be vital for NHS workers themselves to get organised, to prepare for the necessary fight needed to demand safe working conditions and a pay rise. Local protests, such as the ones in the summer, should be organised by health workers and they should demand that the unions support and mobilise for them. Socialist Alternative members who are health workers, campaigners and active in the trade unions will do all that we can to help build this type of action.
• Bring all test and trace services in house. No compensation for SERCO or SITEL
• For an immediate public inquiry independent of government and composed of trade union representatives and health experts into the Tories’ mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic
• Renationalise the NHS, under democratic control and ownership of workers. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past by leaving representatives of capitalism in control. Kick out ALL the profiteers with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
• Bring the pharmaceutical industry under democratic public ownership to ensure an efficient and joined up response to producing a vaccine
• Pay NHS and care workers what they deserve. Unions must ballot for industrial action! Strike and organise for a 15% pay rise. Reinstate annual increments.