Tory Health Secretary Matt Hanccok in April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons Tory Health Secretary Matt Hanccok in April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on Covid-19, class crises and the escalation of global tensions

As Boris Johnson returns to take charge of the coronavirus crisis – ‘raring to go’ as one of the papers put it, the terrible situation in which Britain now finds itself should bring complete shame on this government. There are now over 20,000 official hospital deaths, and many thousands more in care homes and in private homes. A Financial Times survey last week estimated the actual figures at around double that so far – an astonishing 40,000. If these figures are borne out, and experts such as Anthony Costello predict that they will be, then Britain will have one of the highest levels of coronavirus deaths anywhere in the world.
While we are fortunate to be spared the excesses of Donald Trump, whose suggestion that people might inject disinfectant to ward off the virus has persuaded even his most devoted advisers that he shouldn’t give daily press conferences, we nonetheless are saddled with a government revealed to be almost totally incompetent, unable to protect its own citizens in many instances and now increasingly sending signals that the lockdown can and should be lifted soon despite all evidence to the contrary.
The inability to test even essential workers has turned into a grim farce, which is costing the lives of carers and their patients. The failure to deliver the most basic PPE is an indictment of the way in which the NHS is run and managed. The very high number of deaths in care homes – many of them still not published – suggest that there has been an attitude of negligence if not worse towards older people and their carers.
A friend who lives abroad suggested to me that it looked like the British medical authorities are being leaned on by politicians to come to certain decisions. It certainly does. It is clear, for example, that the advice over whether to wear masks is driven by the fact that there are not sufficient supplies even for NHS and other essential workers. And we now know that Dominic Cummings was attending the government’s supposedly independent scientific advisory SAGE committee. We know that Cummings was one of the more enthusiastic about the idea of ‘herd immunity’. The government is following much of this policy by stealth.
The desire of many politicians and businessmen to end the lockdown is motivated above all by the desire to ‘get the economy moving again’ – something which is likely, in the absence of testing and tracing, to lead to another spike of cases and deaths, as has been seen in Japan for example. In any case, we should not suppose that many of these people have the interests of anyone else at heart.
The major companies are doing very little to make life easier for their customers. Airlines are refusing refunds on cancelled flights, even though this is illegal, and giving vouchers which may well be worthless, even if people are able to or want to fly in a few months’ time. Insurance companies are denying many small businesses compensation, claiming that the virus is not covered by their policies. We’re going to see a lot more of this – and of attempts to make workers carry out their jobs in dangerous conditions, or accept pay freezes or cuts because of the crisis.
Not surprisingly, there is a downward trend of support for the government, according to an Opinium poll in the Observer. That support peaked on 26th March, when the lockdown was first implemented, reflecting that this was what many people saw as essential to deal with the virus. As ever greater incompetence and spiralling death rates have become apparent, so that support has declined. I regard this as fairly remarkable and a tribute to the general intelligence of ordinary people, given the appalling obsequiousness of the media, the liberal use of celebrities and the royal family to convince us that we’re all in it together, and the attempt to turn the crisis into a giant Bake Off/Children in Need/Live Aid type of spectacular.
It certainly has little to do with Labour’s opposition. It gives me little pleasure to say that three weeks after he became leader, Keir Starmer is making the most terrible mess of it. I know they love him in the media (but not as much as they love Johnson), and that they all decided that he made a ‘forensic’ intervention at prime minister’s question time on Wednesday. But that is wishful thinking because he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. His whole approach has been to minimise any criticism and to keep stressing an exit plan for the lockdown, rather than lack of testing and PPE.
This isn’t even good politics. He and his shadow cabinet who stress their constructive loyal opposition are likely to be outflanked by Johnson. Starmer maybe a legal heavyweight but he is a political lightweight, and it shows.
The temptation for Labour and the trade unions is to be too timid to challenge a government which is failing at every turn and which is getting an amazingly easy ride. But there is a major conflict going on, not least about class and who suffers – and pays for – the crisis. It will be hard for the Tories and big business to impose another major bout of austerity on the NHS, given the circumstances. It will even be hard to deny decent wages to groups like refuse workers or post workers, given how valued they are at present.
But they will want to, and they will try – especially in less unionised and organised sectors of work. And they will argue that people have to accept worse conditions or less pay because the alternative is no work.
What we do now can help to shape the outcome of that class conflict and struggle in our favour. The government is getting behind the minute’s silence for carers and key workers on Tuesday, as it has with the clapping every Thursday. We need to make political statements at those events – posters, placards, physical protests where possible, stopping work – to challenge the government narrative. And support every group of workers, like those on the London tube and the teachers’ unions, who are fighting management and government impositions which threaten their safety.

Combat ready?

I don’t watch the daily press briefings because I’m not a big fan of state propaganda, and the report that one last week was addressed by an army general in full fatigues doesn’t entirely surprise me. Let’s not for a moment think that the appearance of Sir Nick Carter, chief of defence staff, was accidental. Indeed it probably emanated from the brain of Dominic Cummings. It is meant to signify that the crisis is like a war, and in a war the military are allowed to do pretty much what they like. The government fears all sorts of outcomes to the crisis – across the Channel, there have been significant riots in the Paris suburbs around issues such as police harassment – and that is one reason it has given itself extensive powers over the rest of us. The army is there to back it up.
There is another reason: the crisis is beginning to ramp up considerable tensions internationally and especially with China. Trump and many others blame China for the virus and argue the Chinese government has lied to its people. Unlike the US and UK governments of course. So we are seeing claims that the virus shows the failure of Communism (although the Chinese government is far from such apart from in name alone). We are already seeing potential clashes in the South China Sea and with Iran. We are also seeing the closure of borders in many countries.
Military conflict should be the last thing on anyone’s mind in this crisis – but it isn’t. Major economic and national tensions can and do lead to military ones. And we can be sure this government will be at the forefront of those.

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’.