Boris Johnson’s television broadcast, 10 May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons Boris Johnson’s television broadcast, 10 May 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Alex Snowdon on Tory recklessness and the workers fighting back

Boris Johnson’s speech last night was a key moment. Just as the prime minister’s address to the nation on Monday 23 March heralded a major series of restrictions – ‘lockdown’ in shorthand – yesterday’s speech was also a milestone in the UK’s handling of the pandemic.

By dropping the ‘stay at home’ slogan and promoting a return to work, Johnson is effectively signalling relaxation of the lockdown, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit that is what he is doing. This comes in the context of well over 30,000 deaths from coronavirus in the official UK tally. The Financial Times has estimated that the real toll is nearly double that. Last week the UK overtook Italy as the worst-hit country in Europe.

Unlike in many other countries, there is not yet a strong pattern of the numbers – of those infected, hospitalising or dying – being consistently in decline. Poor levels of testing and tracing make it harder to identify where the virus is circulating than it ought to be. In these circumstances, it is too early to lift the lockdown.

Even some people returning to their workplaces, especially when this is accompanied by deeply confused messaging, could cost thousands more lives. Johnson’s push to get areas like construction and manufacturing back to normal capacity – from today – is criminally irresponsible. In the words of comedian Frankie Boyle: “The message seems to be that construction workers should go back to work, on foot, to make money for people who don’t care if they live or die”.

Two factors stand out as crucial in explaining how severe the pandemic has been in this country, though unsurprisingly neither were acknowledged as terrible failings in Johnson’s evasive speech. One is the slowness in introducing lockdown, including disastrous hesitation over closing the schools, compounded by reluctance to implement it fully by forcing non-essential workplaces to close.

The other factor is the ongoing failure to establish a serious ‘test, trace, isolate’ regime, as has been done in countries like South Korea and Germany. Targets for testing have been missed again and again. The prime minister talked up testing in his address, but those repeated failures tell their own story.

Despite the continuing seriousness of the virus, including an epidemic in care homes and disturbingly high levels of deaths among frontline NHS staff (accentuated by inadequate PPE), we have endured a combination of confusion, mixed messages and ‘lockdown exit’ hype from government ministers, and their echo chamber in the Tory press, in recent days. No wonder there were worrying examples of people breaking lockdown restrictions, as has been reported widely, over the bank holiday weekend.

The propaganda offensive of the last few days has been readying everyone for a substantial lifting of the lockdown, attempting to shift the debate. There has been a bizarre disconnection between the front pages proclaiming imminent ‘freedom’ and the remorseless daily death toll.

Other countries reducing restrictions have been cited, but these countries do not have people dying on such a serious scale and they are unambiguously seeing numbers drop sharply. A number of countries also offer reasons to be cautious. Germany, for example, has seen a worrying increase in its Reproduction (R) number, which indicates the likelihood of infected people infecting others, since reducing restrictions. Reports from China suggest a new wave of infections.

Johnson under pressure

Despite some examples of lockdown being flouted, public support for it has remained stubbornly high. The strains and sacrifices people are experiencing have not seriously altered the widespread public consensus supporting an approach that puts safety first. Scientists and medical experts spoke publicly over the weekend to warn that exiting lockdown will not be supported by the scientific evidence or epidemiologists’ modelling of likely health outcomes. They warned of 100,000 deaths being plausible if restrictions are removed too hastily.

Pressure on Johnson has come from two other important sources. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all made announcements that they were extending lockdown, with only minor amendments, and that they have no plans for reopening schools imminently. The UK-wide consensus has fractured.

The other source of pressure is trade unions, in particular the National Education Union and other unions with members working in schools, insisting that safety in the workplace is paramount. For unions this is a matter of protecting workers’ lives and health, but also about safeguarding the wider community by seeking to push down transmission levels.

In schools there is acute awareness that children, though typically not suffering severe symptoms, can transmit the virus to family members. The pressure from education unions has clearly had a big effect, with Johnson merely saying that some children (those in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6) may return as early as 1 June. It is implausible that this will be a safe option in just three weeks. The government can – and must – be beaten back.

The shift in government messaging illustrates the acute irresponsibility of the government, but also its deep problems in winning popular consent. The replacement of the direct and practical ‘Stay at Home’ with the vague ‘Stay Alert’, together with ditching the ‘Protect the NHS’ line, is geared towards getting people back into their workplaces. It reflects putting the interests of business ahead of the lives, health and safety of working people and their families and communities.

The new messages are a matter of public relations, not public health. They have been mocked mercilessly online, reflecting the sentiment expressed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: “I don’t know what Stay Alert means”. We are not meant to: it is designed to be vague and nebulous, allowing businesses flexibility over what dangers they confront their workers with.

The new 5-stage alert system for highlighting how serious the pandemic is should also be viewed as shallow marketing. By suggesting we are not currently on the highest possible level, the government wants us to feel grateful for the ‘progress’ it has supposedly made while softening us up for further easing of the lockdown. Johnson even cynically referred to how some forecasts had talked of half a million deaths if no action was taken, as if we should be grateful.

Opposition from workers

Opposition to the government’s approach is desperately needed. Labour has largely failed so far. Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has been impressive, but leader Keir Starmer has put a spurious ‘national unity’ ahead of holding the government to account, still less directly opposing it.

A newspaper article by his shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, was barely distinguishable from Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak. Starmer and Dodds have failed to express workers’ demands for safety at work and for only re-opening workplaces when the virus is under greater control (and mass testing is really happening).

More opposition is coming from trade unions. Here the picture is mixed, with some unions being very slow to adapt to new circumstances and often overly willing to forge a consensus with government and employers. But there have been important positive examples too. Transport unions have exerted major pressure and there have been highly impressive examples of workers’ collective action, for example on the London Underground.

The National Education Union has consistently shown what is possible by combining concerted national pressure and a serious approach to workplace organisation. The issue of schools re-opening has become central to debates about lockdown exit. The union’s five tests are a set of conditions that need to be met before schools welcome back significant numbers of pupils, emphasising safety before all else. NEU campaigning has involved building bridges with other relevant unions and reaching out to parents and wider society.

This approach now faces a serious challenge, with the possibility that many primary school children will be pushed back into school environments from 1 June onwards. The NEU’s tests have not been met – and look unlikely to be met very soon. The entire labour movement should mobilise to support school staff trying to protect lives.

It is also time for all unions to fully adopt the same stance of championing what is right for society as well as taking action to protect union members in the workplace. A concerted effort to get millions of workers back into workplaces, irrespective of safety, is now underway. The People’s Assembly, which held an excellent and unifying online rally last Thursday, can also strengthen alliances that stretch beyond the unions.

The popular opposition to Tory recklessness and ruling class pursuit of profit will hopefully find an echo on the Labour front bench, but it will only be an echo. The driving force of resistance will be trade unionists and the broader movement.

We have urgent dangers to prevent and, beyond the immediate crisis, the last two months have also prompted a myriad set of big questions about how our society ought to be run. Socialists need to be providing answers to those questions as well as agitating now for the action needed to control the pandemic and ensure our safety.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).