Alok Sharma, Business Secretary. Photo: Flickr/Number10 Alok Sharma, Business Secretary. Photo: Flickr/Number10

Thanking business at this time is grossly insensitive and irresponsible, argues Katherine Connelly

The last 24 hours have been very difficult indeed with news that a further 563 people have died from the Coronavirus, the biggest daily rise so far and 31% higher than the previous day. This takes the number of people who have lost their lives in hospitals in the UK to the pandemic to 2,352. Tragically, among those who died in the last 24 hours was a thirteen-year-old, thought to be the UK’s youngest victim.

It seemed glaringly inappropriate that it was the Business Secretary who delivered today’s government briefing. It speaks volumes about the government’s priorities at this moment. 

It also reveals a lot about the purpose of these government briefings, which increasingly resemble a PR exercise. There’s a repeated slogan – that the government have been undertaking the right steps at the right time – that the politician memorises and repeats standing alongside a representative of a professional health organisation: optics that exude scientific objectivity.

Never mind that at the weekend there were hopes of the figures falling, that yesterday at the government briefing there was talk of ‘green shoots’ in the fight against the Coronavirus – which is now manifestly not the case. It was still ‘right steps at the right time’ today. These briefings are not about accountability. 

Instead, the government is allowed to relay an up-beat tale that bears no resemblance to reality. It contradicts itself from week to week and is not held to account. Thus, today the Business Secretary Alok Sharma told us that the death of the young teenager shows that the virus “does not discriminate”. But only a few weeks ago the government (flanked by those scientific ‘experts’) were justifying not closing the schools on the basis that they thought children might not develop severe symptoms. How sadly untrue that appears now. 

Dominic Cummings must be delighted that these twists and turns are subject to so little scrutiny. Once, critical journalists were locked out of Number 10; now questions are taken from a small number of journalists, inadequately responded to and it is on to the next. 

In these circumstances, there should be questions from patients as well as health workers, supermarket workers, tube workers, postal workers and others who work on the front line with the public. 

Had those people been present, they might have noted that while the medical director at Public Health England complained about individuals’ car usage (likely many employees unable or unwilling to take public transport), there was no such checking of the behaviour of the employers. In fact, Alok Sharma took the opportunity to thank businesses.

Yet, at this moment, workers are standing up to bosses who are putting them at risk. On Monday, over 80 postal workers and admin staff walked out of the Alloa sorting office in Scotland in protest at unsafe working conditions, the lack of sufficient PPE and the instruction to deliver junk mail (including for companies that are not currently operating). 

Today, the general secretary of the CWU has reported that at a meeting with Royal Mail’s senior management (which the CEO Rico Back chose not to attend), Royal Mail said ‘it is safe for you to work in your offices without the full provision of Personal Protective Equipment.’

In Swindon, over 80 workers walked out from a DHL-run warehouse for Marks and Spencer over safety concerns. 

Meanwhile, profits have been put ahead of safety with some non-essential industries, such as construction, continuing to operate. Reportedly, the tubes in London remain packed at rush-hour. 

So if the government briefing after the highest death toll to date had to be delivered by the Business Secretary, why didn’t he challenge these business practices? Instead, his praise was a clear indication to workers that they can hope for little support from the government if they challenge their bosses over safety. 

The government’s specific praise for businesses ‘supporting the NHS’ represented a particularly brazen dodging of its own responsibility. As Dr Mona Kamal has argued on Counterfire, the private sector is profiting from government cuts to the NHS. Beds should not be rented from the private sector by the NHS (at an estimated cost of £2.4 million a day): they should have been requisitioned from the private sector by the government. 

A cravenly pro-market approach has weakened response to the Coronavirus and, in its failure to discipline employers, the government continues to put people at risk. As striking groups of workers are showing, ‘business as usual’ is dangerous and it has to stop. For good.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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