Boris Johnson at Downing Street, November 2021. Photo: Number 10/Simon Dawson Boris Johnson at Downing Street, November 2021. Photo: Number 10/Simon Dawson

Lindsey German on our benighted prime minister, the politics of migration and university strikes

The new Omicron variant of Covid-19, originating in Southern Africa and now leading to travel bans and restrictions across the world, produced an instant response from the stock markets last Friday. Share prices of drug and vaccine companies rose, while those of airlines and hospitality companies fell. Read this across to government policy and you can see that the response to Covid-19 over the past months owes far more to following economic reactions than the medical evidence.

Once again therefore Britain is plunged into a crisis over Covid-19 – one which is totally of its government’s own making. The politicians have been warned that the virus will continue to mutate and that this will make it possibly more resistant to existing vaccines. While the vaccinations have done a great deal to lessen severe symptoms and hospitalisation, the number of cases and deaths has remained quite high.

Perhaps most importantly, the assertion that vaccinations and the booster jabs would enable people to carry on their lives with effectively no restrictions has led to a level of complacency which is now putting health and lives at risk. This has been accompanied by a level of recklessness from the government which repeatedly refused to implement its ‘plan B’ which would have enforced some restrictions including mask wearing.

Now Johnson and Javid have been forced to reintroduce mask wearing on public transport and in shops – but are refusing to extend this to pubs and restaurants, at a time of year when large numbers will be in such indoor venues with inadequate ventilation. They have also had to reintroduce tests for travellers arriving in England.

The government’s refusal to do so up to now will make things much harder. Despite the fact that mask wearing is supposedly compulsory on London buses and underground, I would say that only a minority wear them – and that has got worse over the past few months. The problem is that once the government takes a flippant and cavalier attitude to questions of safety, many people assume that they do not need to bother. Johnson’s repeated refusal to wear one, most recently in a London theatre, shows his utter contempt for his own rules.

Even now, Javid is denying the need for social distancing or working from home. This is even more reckless. If we are in danger of the spread of a new variation then we need to act quickly to stop it, which means restrictions on public venues, working from home, compulsory mask wearing in universities, schools, offices and other public places.

The truth is that Johnson sees dealing with the virus in the narrowest economic and political terms. They fear opprobrium from the Daily Mail if they ‘cancel Christmas’ so will almost certainly do nothing to stop people meeting together indoors – and will then impose further restrictions in the new year. They also fear any dent in the profits of the major companies so will do everything they can to avoid this.

The profits-led response to the crisis has been apparent from the start, not least in the refusal to pay proper sick pay to those who need it. This stands in stark contrast to the billions awarded to government cronies for contracts during the pandemic. And to the great hidden scandal of fraudulent loan applications by businesses. Overall losses of all state-backed Covid-19 loans are close to £20 billion – around £5 billion of this attributed to fraud.

We have a government which tolerates this but refuses to share vaccines and intellectual property rights with large parts of the world where very few people have received vaccinations and where the pandemic is spreading. It seems to have escaped the rulers of the richest countries in the world that the disease does not respect borders and therefore unless it is dealt with on a worldwide basis it will keep reappearing.

We have endured nearly two years of the government’s failings over Covid, from failure the provide PPE, to locking down too late, to following the demands of big business in dealing with it, to defunding and privatising the NHS. This is not a separate issue from its general levels of attack on workers, its corruption and its deep incompetence. They all stem from the same thing: the desire to put profit for the minority above everything else. And they expect us to pay the price.

Voyage of the damned

Fortress Britain and Fortress Europe are particularly barbaric examples of how the system works. We saw this week the terrible fate of the 27 refugees drowned while crossing the English Channel, as they tried desperately to get to Britain. The first victim identified was an Iraqi Kurd, leaving a country ravaged by war and corruption. Others arriving in Kent this week were Afghans, supposedly being helped by the British government but forced to use these dangerous routes because no help was forthcoming.

Britain has a huge responsibility for these refugees because of the wars we have prosecuted going back to the first Gulf War in this case. Yet while those wars were cheered on by right wing media and politicians, these same people refuse to allow the victims of war to come here, and begrudge the meagre sums spent on housing and feeding them.

There is little good you can say about these people. They will use the refugee crisis for their own political ends and try to deny any humane response to the plight of those who are in such fear and danger that they attempt arduous and deadly routes to get to relative safety. Instead they try to turn this into a question of crime, blaming the deaths on people smugglers. The smugglers are undoubtedly vile individuals but they are a symptom of the problem rather than its cause.

There could easily be put in place safe routes to get to the UK where refugees could then be processed. The majority who do arrive find their cases are successful and this would likely continue. Instead they become part of a political contest between Britain and France, both of whose politicians pander to scapegoating and the right wing narrative. Across the fringes of the EU, refugees are being kept out by fences, violent police attacks, detention centres and repression.

The world is becoming more dangerous and this will continue, whether exacerbated by war, climate change or economic collapse. The future can either be more brutal treatment of refuges, or a recognition of their rights to settle in Britain and elsewhere. The refugee debate has been allowed to get toxic, not least by a Labour Party whose leaders all too often join in with the scapegoating. We have a big fight on our hands to change that – but change it we must.

Peer-reviewed picket lines

Good luck to all my fellow UCU members striking for three days this week. At my university the union members voted by nearly 2 to 1 to strike, and more than 4 to 1 for action short of strike. But because we didn’t reach the threshold of 50% we are not allowed to go on strike, under the highly restrictive trade union laws. So we can only show solidarity, donate to strikers, and get across to fellow staff and students the importance of this fight.

The dispute is partly over pensions in the older universities, and partly over jobs, workload, casualisation and equality issues. There are also local disputes, especially at Goldsmiths where they have three weeks of strike. The overall message is clear however – that universities are attacking the incomes and conditions of their staff at the same time that marketisation is delivering huge profits and rewards for senior management.

The strikes are part of a wider growth in industrial action we are seeing across the country. So it is important that we win. Get down to a picket line if you can, donate to strike funds – and if you are a student argue why you should support the strikers.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.