The Tory government is turning, once again, to place blame for the rise in Covid infections on the public for not sticking to the lockdown restrictions. Reports in the press, ministers on TV and a new advert featuring Chris Whitty are all putting emphasis on people breaking rules as the main reason for why the NHS is struggling with the number of hospital admissions.
Socialists need to reject any attempt to put misplaced blame on working class people – who undoubtedly have suffered the most due to Covid and the various lockdowns – especially when that is coming from a government of millionaires who have failed at every hurdle to keep us safe. We also need to organise against any attempt to divide the working class during the crisis, such as on the basis of education workers versus parents, older people versus younger people or those in the north versus those in the south.
It is not the overwhelming majority of the population who are to blame for the spiralling number of infections, or for the fact that most hospitals are at full capacity, or that schools needed to close because they were not safe. It is the Tory government and the capitalist system who are responsible. And it will take more drastic change than police enforcement of mask wearing in supermarkets to deal with this crisis.
Escalation of blame on ordinary people
Matt Hancock, health secretary, has praised plans by supermarkets to call the police on people refusing to wear masks, saying that he wants to see “all parts of society playing their part in this” and “Stronger enforcement is necessary, and I’m delighted that the police are stepping up their enforcement. But it isn’t just about the government and the rules we set, or the police and the work that they do. It’s about how everybody behaves.”
This is a slap in the face to the millions of people who have been keeping to the rules – including over the Christmas period by not seeing family – and the sacrifice being made by many parents who are struggling with homeschooling and all of the extra costs which go with it. The majority of society (over 70% according to several polls) were accepting that there was a need for a new lockdown, due to the increasing rates and the new strain, and that schools would need to close. The vast majority are adhering to the lockdown laws.
Some commentators are blaming the mixed messages for the fact that some people are travelling further for exercise, or meeting people who they shouldn’t. There are different guidelines in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also announcements are made in confusing ways, at the last minute and then changed shortly afterwards.
Erosion of trust in the government
But some are talking about the big ‘erosion of trust’ in what the government is saying, describing it as the ‘Cummings effect’ – referencing former government advisor Dominic Cummings who broke rules during the first lockdown and ridiculously justified himself and was backed uncritically by the entire government. No doubt this will have had an impact by reinforcing the idea that there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us, and that the interests of the economy are being put before the health of the population. According to YouGov, there is now a 49% disapproval rating of the government. This comes after countless u-turns and retreats, the latest being the closure of schools, 24 hours after insisting they were safe, as a result of the pressure put by 400,000 education workers and their trade union.
The bigger issue, however, is not that people are breaking the rules but that the government has failed to get a handle on the pandemic from the beginning. They are trying to divert the blame from themselves to the public. But, it was the Tories who were slow in bringing in the first lockdown at the beginning of 2020 after flirting with the failed and dangerous idea of ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy to combat the virus. It was the Tories who brought us out of the lockdown without a functioning test and trace programme and an encouragement to ‘eat out to help out’ while it was not safe. It was the Tories who allowed schools to remain open while proper health and safety regulations were not put in place. And it was the Tories who have underfunded, cut and privatised the health and social care sector which meant it was already in crisis and at breaking point before the pandemic hit.
This is not just because the Tories are callous representatives of the super-rich who don’t care about ordinary people, but because the capitalist system is completely incapable of providing the most basic needs to humanity, even in ‘normal times’, let alone during a global pandemic.
Food packages scandal
This is shown in perhaps the most shocking way by the food packages sent to families – containing halves of peppers or coin bags of tuna – to supposedly help with feeding children while schools are closed. This highlights on the one hand the complete disregard for working class people and the absolute lack of funding and planning for dealing with the issue of hungry children who would normally have received free school meals.
However, on the other hand, it also highlights how in 21st Century Britain there are families who rely on their children being fed at school because they cannot afford to do so. This is linked to a whole range of issues such as low wages – which for most workers have not increased in real terms in the last 10 years, unaffordable rent, the rising cost of food and more. All of these issues could be solved on the basis of a socialist society, which could pay all workers a genuine living wage. Through the building of council housing there could be affordable rent and through a democratic plan of production, including a nationalised food industry, the cost of living would be massively reduced.
The schools dilemma
The dilemma being faced by many parents of trying to juggle work, childcare and home-schooling is also a reflection of this. The conditions created by the Tories and capitalism lead to a certain conflict between the need for schools to close in January and the pressure this will put on working class families. This has meant an increase in costs for the poorest families – not just in food but also in energy bills, printer ink and more – who are also perhaps only receiving 80% of their wages if they are furloughed or not able to work because they need to provide childcare. There is also concern over the mental health of both children and parents in dealing with this situation for weeks or months, plus the fear of what children are missing out on in terms of education and socialisation.
Some children do not have access to the technology needed for remote learning, or live in overcrowded housing without quiet space for studying, and are therefore being classed as ‘vulnerable’ and able to go into school. It is understandable that parents in such circumstances may want their children to attend to assist their learning, just as it is understandable that more key workers seem to be taking up the offer of school places this time, with more workplaces open and an extra six months of pandemic-strain having an impact on people’s ability to manage the impossible balancing of roles at home. But this is then causing problems for education workers who are facing the risk of coronavirus by going into school to teach and look after children. The response by the government was to attack parents for being ‘dishonest’ and to whip up divisions between them and education workers who felt that they were slowly being forced back into unsafe working conditions.
However, this was not inevitable. Schools do not operate in a vacuum so if there is a general rise in the infection rate, it will also be reflected in schools. There are also particular issues related to schools such as the difficulty in children keeping to social distance guidelines and being inside for hours during the day in the winter, which were not dealt with in the Autumn. The lack of testing in schools plus some head teachers flouting guidelines (see the experience of Louise Lewis in Huddersfield) also contributed to them being unsafe.
The need for democratic control by workers
If there had been democratic control such as through elected committees of workers, parents and trade unions making decisions about what was safe or what measures were needed in order to make schools safe things could have been different. But, under capitalism, decisions are made only from the top and in the interests of profit i.e. keeping the economy running at the expense of our safety. [Read more about our programme for the safe reopening of schools here].
The pressure on parents could also have been alleviated if there was free, universal child care available. The cost of childcare has skyrocketed in recent years, with many working families being unable to afford it. Private nurseries are now saying they will go out of business unless they receive financial support from the government. But childcare shouldn’t be run as a business in any case! These struggling companies should be taken back in-house by local governments so that childcare can be freely provided, with nursery workers having the protection needed such as PPE to be able to carry out their jobs safely.
All of this also highlights how education under capitalism is generally treated as a business, rather than a right. Decades of academisation and privatisation of schools have led to many of them being run by business people rather than education workers. A larger pool of education workers, smaller class sizes, and fit-for-purpose, modern school buildings would have made reorganising classes for social distancing much easier.
This marketisation is much more of an issue when it comes to higher education, shown in the outrageous way in which university students were treated: brought to expensive accommodation to only be locked in and all physical lectures cancelled. In response there has been an inspirational kick-back from students with rent strikes taking place at over 40 universities.
Vaccine rollout chaos
With Matt Hancock saying that schools would only reopen when “the vaccine programme was running effectively, deaths falling, there were no dangerous new virus mutations and the NHS was not overwhelmed” there is the real possibility that schools will remain closed for longer than expected, with the national lockdown potentially being extended. Whenever schools reopen, it cannot be left in the hands of management or the government but must be controlled democratically by workers and parents to ensure it is done in a safe way.
The development of the vaccine has provided a light at the end of the tunnel, with many feeling that this lockdown may be the last and a necessary evil while the vaccine is rolled out. However, there is also a lot of scepticism about whether the government will be able to successfully do this. Already there has been anger around the confusion caused on when people will receive the second dose, and whether it is safe to wait longer than originally advised for it, with people having their appointments cancelled and chaos for GP surgeries.
The development of the vaccine itself shows the limitations and barriers of the capitalist system (more here). But the chaotic way in which the vaccination roll out is being done, with the government already failing to hit its targets and shortages of stock, shows further the need for socialist planning. Instead of relying on different private companies, if there was a nationalised pharmaceutical industry it would be much easier (and cheaper) to produce the number of vaccines needed. If there was a fully-funded, publicly owned national health service which was staffed properly, the vaccine could be given to people quicker and without the reliance on volunteers. Planning for where a certain number of vaccines would be needed based on the population would also be possible without the ridiculous notion of people travelling over 10 miles to receive theirs.
Failure of private companies
These points also apply to the failure to implement mass testing, which will be necessary alongside the vaccination if we are to come out of lockdown safely. The government has spent at least £1.5bn on lateral flow testing technology – all to private companies – but they are not very reliable.
The rush to get out of lockdown last year was motivated by economic reasons. Socialists understand that lockdowns are not a solution and actually should be a last resort when testing, tracing and vaccinating have failed – something the government has done three times now. Lockdowns have a hugely negative effect on us for many reasons: socially, economically and personally.
Many workers will also be concerned about the economy. More than a third of the poorest families have seen their incomes cut during the pandemic, according to the Resolution Foundation. The fact the retail sales in the run up to Christmas were 25% below last year’s levels will result in mass lay-offs of retail workers, something that is also taking place in hospitality. The furlough scheme which has now been extended to April has meant this hasn’t been fully realised yet, but there will be a big increase in unemployment.
Again this is because of the capitalist system which makes the working class pay for the crises it creates. The owners of these failing businesses will receive big pay-outs while many workers will end up with little or no redundancy payments, pensions and so on, as we have seen already with the example of Debenhams. Rather than merely extending the furlough scheme further, which is insufficient as it is, there should be the nationalisation of all large businesses which threaten redundancies so that they can be run democratically under workers’ control to defend jobs and provide affordable products.
Socialism is the only solution
Given that all of the seemingly unsolvable problems that we are facing as a society have their roots in the chaos and inequality of the capitalist system, it is necessary to raise boldly the need for socialist change, now more than ever. That is not something which is going to happen in the leadership of the Labour Party. Keir Starmer has done everything that he can to support the government over the past year, only offering mealy-mouthed ‘criticism’ but doing nothing about it.
The working class, who has kept society running during this pandemic, needs a political party of its own to be able to organise the necessary fight, whether that is in education, healthcare or over the cost of living. We need this type of organisation to be able to cut across the attempts to blame and divide us and to be able to build a united movement to demand what we need to survive. But more than this, we need to raise our sights to a different type of society – a socialist society – which can not only cater for our basic needs but also provide a decent life for all.