Vauxhall estate. Photo: Geograph Vauxhall estate. Photo: Geograph

Working class people are the worst affected by the health crisis and the government’s response is geared toward protecting the rich, writes Richard Allday

“We’re all in this together.” “Stay home. Save lives.” I don’t know who else noticed that Dr. Hancock (Health Minister) standing in for Boris Johnson at Friday’s press conference couldn’t bring himself to read the slogan printed across his lectern. The full slogan, unchanged since No.10’s PR team decided to go for broke in brass-necked hypocrisy, reads “Stay in. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” The bit about the NHS was apparently a step too far for our Matt, minister of the Crown, responsible for … the NHS.

He did however redeem himself, when fed a question from a compliant member of the press corps about whether Premier League footballers should take a pay cut, by taking a series of well-aimed swipes at those profiteering, money-grabbing, selfish CEOs and industrial magnates (Richard Branson, Daniel Levy, Michael Ashley come to mind) who are swarming around the chancellor like flies round a honeypot, looking for handouts, loans, tax deferrals, or the government’s wage subsidy deal (also known as furloughing).

Sorry. Having re-read that at the editing stage, I confess to having misunderstood. Apparently, it’s perfectly alright for multi-billionaire Branson (who launched his wunderkind entrepreneurial career with a scheme to defraud HMRC through an export scam/tax fiddle) to get his fellow paupers at Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Heathrow to lobby government for state aid for Virgin Atlantic. And it’s perfectly alright for EasyJet to pay major shareholder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and his family £60M in dividends last month alone, but expect the taxpayer to pay 80% of the wage bill for the 4,000 employees EasyJet intends to furlough.

What is apparently not alright is for professional sportsmen to expect their contracts to be honoured. What is it about professional footballers that winds up Tory grandees so much? Its almost as if they have never come to terms with the emergence of the PFA (the English footballer’s trade union) and the smashing of the wage cap back in the ‘60s.

Let’s be clear on this: professional sportswomen and men have long held the moral high ground when compared to the hucksters and parasites who get rich on their backs.

Just to take a few examples from the English Premiership:

  • Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) has offered the 50 flats he co-owns to the NHS, free of charge;
  • Harry Maguire (Man. United) has asked his fellow senior squad players to donate 30% of their wages to the NHS;
  • Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, captain) has launched talks with other Premier League captains, with a view to setting up a specific NHS fund.
  • Andy Carrol (Newcastle Utd) organised a whip-round for a hip-replacement for the club kit man.
  • Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville (two players whose talents allowed their club a brief flirtation with success some years ago) own two luxury hotels in Manchester. Last year, one of their hotels, undergoing refurbishment, was squatted by a group of homeless activists as winter approached.

What would be the approach of your Richard Branson do you think? Get the lawyers, get a writ, get them evicted! (I assume.) Giggs’ and Neville’s approach? Speak to the squatters, realise their very real problem, halt the building work, and turn the building over to provide a homeless shelter for the winter.

I said ‘halt the building work’ – not entirely true. Giggs and Neville paid the contractors to make sure essential services were connected and available before turning the building over.

Two weeks ago, this same pair turned their two luxury hotels over to the NHS, to provide free accommodation for essential NHS staff, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.

Not the same deal as the major hotel chains struck with the government – where they are providing hotel rooms at reduced rates for NHS use. These are hotel rooms for which there is no market, as business and holiday bookings collapse; these are hotel chains which are already expecting the government to pick up 80% of their staff overheads, through the furlough scheme; and still seek ways to turn a buck out of a national emergency!

That is alright apparently – indeed, to be lauded. Unlike those greedy, overpaid footballers. Not the club owners, you understand, or the CEOs. They are not greedy profiteering b*$#@*#s at all, but honest businessmen trying to save their clubs  – not their portfolios, no, no. Like Daniel Levy, chair of Tottenham Hotspur, net worth according to Forbes Rich List, £1 Billion, who first floated cutting ‘his’ players’ wages by 30%, has cut the club’s non-playing staff wage bill by 100%, by grabbing the government’s subsidy, the furlough scheme, with both hands. Incidentally, this is the Daniel Levy who, not content with his £3M ‘wage’ last year, also accepted a £4M bonus.

Or Karen Brady (now Damed by the Tories), not content with having ripped the heart out of West Ham United, tearing down the Ann Boleyn ground for redevelopment for yuppies and moving the club to Stratford, has also seen the cash advantage offered by the government’s furlough scheme. Like Levy, she resents the fact that she has overseen contracts with the club’s footballers that prevents her welshing on the agreements, so instead appears happy to go along with Levy’s approach.

Or Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United – and of Sports Direct. This is the man who oversaw working conditions at Sports Direct so bad that women gave birth in the toilets rather than risk their jobs by taking time off for medical assistance! The same man who has, like the above, grabbed the government subsidies by furloughing the non-playing staff, but resents having to honour contracts he has agreed.

But this is not merely a matter of morality; it is also a matter of practicality. The argument for a pay cut, as raised by Hancock, is dishonest the whole way through. First, is the completely spurious linking of the crisis in the NHS and footballers’ pay, as if in some way, Newcastle United’s Mike Ashley reduces his players’ wages by 20%, and then donates it to the NHS! Second, was the disgraceful, and spurious, way Hancock tried to insinuate himself into the NHS with his talk of ‘my NHS colleagues’ who ‘risk their health’ and ‘tragically, on occasion’ have paid with their lives. They are not your colleagues Hancock. They are nurses, and doctors, and nursing assistants, and domestics, and porters. You are a Tory politician, on two grand a week, who is failing to provide the PPE, or the testing, or the facilities, or the staffing levels that would reduce the risk your not-colleagues are facing every day, whilst you stand behind a lectern, basking in the media coverage, and can’t even bring yourself to mouth ‘Protect our NHS’.

In fact, more disgusting still, this Matt Hancock was more than willing to stand outside the new Nightingale Hospital, London, waxing lyrical about the major step forward this was in the fight against ‘our common foe’. Never once mentioning that the deal he had agreed with the ExCel owners meant he had agreed to them being paid between £2M and £3M a month, for the foreseeable. So they offload a white elephant (cos its just dead space now, with no concerts, conferences, exhibitions, sporting bouts allowed) onto the more than willing (or plain stupid – let’s be generous here) Matt Hancock, for a hefty government subsidy, and in return Hancock bigs them up.

Since the deal became public and the owners realized the potential PR disaster, the contract has been rescinded and the facility is now (allegedly) at no cost to the NHS (not the same as ‘no cost to the taxpayer’ note, so keep your eyes open on this one). But this shouldn’t allow Hancock off the hook. He either did know the costs in the first place, in which case he was blindsiding the taxpayer for self-serving reasons; or he did not, in which case he is a gullible idiot. Either way, not good.

The point of this rant is, to return to the original point, that we are absolutely not “all in this together”.  This is a public health emergency, but like all public scenarios, it affects people differently according to the public space they inhabit. And that is inescapably related to class. If you are locked down on a 20-acre estate in, say, Sandringham, or the Home counties, and you can ride your horses a la Rebekah Brooks/David Cameron or the Chipping Norton set, you are living in a very different lockdown from the tenants on the 15th floor of a tower block in Wanstead.

If you don’t have a garden, your only opportunity to escape the four walls of your flat is to occupy public space. That doesn’t make you Public Enemy No1.

In fact, even the TV coverage of the ‘social vandals’ breaking the lockdown seems to me to be showing people with a very real respect for social distancing, just in public locations. The coverage seems more to be concentrating on preparing a scapegoat than reporting a real, verifiable, risk. And that brings me back to my original point: I reject the hypocritical nonsense that we’re all in this together. Like always, health in our society is inextricably linked to wealth. Poor diet, poor housing, poor life opportunities are reflected, directly, in lower life expectancy, greater incidence of chronic conditions and, inevitably, higher morbidity in times of epidemics or pandemics.

So don’t allow the Tories to divide us. Reject their attempts to divert attention from their partisan approach; as long as front line NHS staff cannot work safely because this government cannot, or will not, provide the tests, PPE, staffing numbers and conditions to protect them, then this government has no moral authority to slag off anyone else. And it should not be the job of Kier Starmer, or any other Labour politician, to provide them with protective cover.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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