Covid-19 image. Photo: Summit County Official Website Covid-19 image. Photo: Summit County Official Website

Any effective response to the virus outbreak will require radical solutions that put human lives before profits and markets, argues Alistair Cartwright

The spread of Coronavirus is exposing underlying problems in the British State, with the NHS already at breaking point and low-paid workers forced to choose between staying healthy and being able to pay the rent. The government’s response so far looks muddled and half-baked. We’re told the central thrust of their strategy is to wait it out till summer. Meanwhile, senior medics say the NHS lacks the staff and equipment needed to cope with the crisis. 

After the Guardian reported that NHS England has only 15 beds to deal with severe respiratory failure, Health Secretary Matt Hancock reassured the public that the latest up-to-date figure was actually 50. The UK currently has 4,000 critical care beds, a quarter of the number in Germany. 90% of them are already occupied. 

Last week, a mother and son diagnosed with the virus were flown 390 miles from their home in Devon to a specialist unit in Newcastle, one of only 4 Airborne Treatment Centres in England. The Health Secretary’s suggestion that home ventilation kits offer a solution has been called ‘fanciful’ by the chair of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses.

Hancock’s position, swinging between indecision and fantasy, is indicative of the dilemma faced by this government. They know that at some point the coronavirus is going to hit the country hard, but their whole way of thinking has been shaped by a policy of eking out the lifespan of their own discredited brand of financialised neoliberalism. What little experience of government intervention they have consists of scavenging pieces off the welfare state to feed to asset stripping corporations, and creating a hostile environment for immigrants. 

The artificial market frameworks put in place during the Cameron-Blair-Thatcher years (everything from the competitive bidding for funding that goes on between GP surgeries, to the transformation of universities into big business) have exacerbated inequality and led to a build-up of serious irrationalities in how the public sector operates. In times like this, Boris Johnson’s gimmicks and slogans just won’t cut it. 

So it’s not surprising that the government’s contingency planning, as far it exists, seems focused on how they intend to help businesses cope with the crisis. Plans floated include delaying tax bills and incentivising banks to offer financial support to small businesses, two quite sensible measures. Right now, conversations in Whitehall will surely be taking place about what exactly is an acceptable number of deaths when weighed against the interests of the economy, and in particular the City of London.

The left’s answer has to be that saving lives comes before company profits. If tackling the epidemic means an emergency levy on the FTSE 100 to raise millions for the NHS, so be it. We can only hope that the anticipated epidemic here in the UK will not reach the kind of scale seen in China. But activists, trade unionists, scientists and frontline medical staff will have to join together to make our own demands about what the response should be.

Dealing with the crisis

This will be an evolving collective process. But by way of a conversation starter, here are some demands that we could raise in framing our response:

1Mass testing and tracing, which World Health Organisation experts have suggested is more effective in the early stages than locking down whole cities, should be rolled out across the country immediately. This will massively improve the decision-making process at all levels. Workers should be allowed to work from home where possible if they have health concerns. 

2Extend statutory sick pay to all workers. Following successful pressure on the government to give sick pay from day one for those affected by the virus, the current minimum earnings threshold of £118 should be removed, including for those on zero-hour contracts. 

3Pensioners on low-incomes to be eligible for one-off grants to cover food, fuel and travel costs. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the virus and should be given every possible help to stay safe. Older people with underlying health conditions should be encouraged to avoid public transport and take taxis where necessary. The government should put special measures in place to help.  

4Scrap the assessment period for Universal Credit and make payments immediately. Sanctions for benefit claimants who don’t attend appointments should be scrapped.

5Price controls to be introduced on essential medical equipment and drugs. There must be no hiking of prices on masks, ventilators, isolation units, beds, basic supplies like soap and hand towels, as well as drugs to combat bacterial complications etc.

6Private hospitals to be put under the management of the NHS. Essential equipment owned by private companies should be pooled as part of the overall effort; private hospital beds should be treated as public. NHS staffing levels should be given an immediate boost by increasing pay to attract more nurses, hospital porters and administrators. 

7No scapegoating of Chinese people, Italians, immigrants or anyone else.  An emergency programme of aid and refugee resettlement should be initiated across Europe. An outbreak of the Coronavirus in one of the crowded refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Greece and elsewhere would be devastating. The best way to prevent such an outbreak would be to provide aid to refugees and to test, treat and resettle all refugees as quickly as possible. Sanctions on Iran should be lifted immediately.   

8The outbreak must not be used as a pretext for clamping down on civil liberties. While we should listen to health experts on whether and when public gatherings need to be curtailed, a crisis of this scale calls for more democracy not less. Frontline public sector workers, especially health workers, should be brought in at the highest level of decision making. The trade unions should be part of the conversation with civil servants and senior NHS staff. There should be maximum transparency in the decision-making process and the underlying rationale for any strategy should be subject to critical public debate.


Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.

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