Boris Johnson, Covid-19 press conference. Photo: Flickr/Number10 Boris Johnson, Covid-19 press conference. Photo: Flickr/Number10

Don’t underestimate the power of popular pressure at this moment, argues Katherine Connelly

It is hard not to feel that the government are making this up as they go along and hurriedly rewriting recent history.

In his government briefing today, Johnson reiterated his mantra that the government has always been guided by scientific advice – the best in the world we were told (better, presumably, than that of the World Health Organisation whose advice it has continually flouted!)

But only 12 days ago, the government’s approach was characterised by the crank-science of ‘herd immunity’. We were supposed to get the virus in large numbers, and Boris Johnson warned ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones’. It was hardly a proactive approach. We are now in a quite different situation with a (partial) lockdown and daily government briefings.

A mixture of cynicism and complacency has been the standard approach of hard right governments globally, with Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil downplaying the danger of the virus. 

It is a considerable victory that we have forced our right-wing government away from what looked to be a similar approach. We should therefore be optimistic about the power of popular pressure in the current circumstances.

While the government was clearly reluctant to shut the schools, an outcry from teachers and parents, as well as parents choosing not to send their children to schools, saw a u-turn from the government who eventually agreed to close them to almost all students. 

While the government let the virus spread (scientifically, of course), people around the country took the initiative and numerous community support groups were swiftly established. 

That determination to confront the virus and protect our communities was evident in the 405,000 people who signed up in just 24 hours to volunteer to support the NHS, far surpassing the government’s target of 250,000 over a few days. 

The moral lectures from some of the most privileged people in the country about working-class ‘selfishness’ have temporarily been hushed. 

Although Johnson will no doubt try to capitalise politically on the volunteer effort, the volunteers’ sense of urgency contrasts starkly with the response of his government whose tardy implementation of public health measures has been limited and thus confusing.

This confusion has been caused by a deference to the market. Downing Street has been forced to deny the report in the Sunday Times that Dominic Cummings summarised government policy as ‘protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. The problem is, it’s all too believable. 

On Monday the government appeared to tell everyone except key workers to ‘stay at home’ and work from home where possible, but the very next day Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, blundered in saying that people should only go to work if they cannot work from home. That is not at all the same thing, as construction workers are now finding out with many being told to come into work. Michael Gove has clarified: work must continue if it is ‘critical to the nation and life of the economy’. Not the just the life of the people. Indeed, construction workers in London are finding themselves packed onto crowded tubes and absurdly told to practice ‘social distancing’ on construction sites – which makes a mockery of the ‘stay at home’ policy.

These sorts of confusing, partial measures provide a get-out clause for unscrupulous employers and do nothing to protect their workforce. 

The example of the schools shows us we can push back against the government’s harmful priorities. We should keep up the pressure for mass testing, for all but key workers to have the right and protection to stay at home, for provision for the self-employed which the government have still not organised and which compromises these workers’ ability to ‘stay at home’. 

The government have been forced to abandon practices they preached as neoliberal orthodoxies. Every day reveals how little present-day capitalism, with its powerful corporations and profit margins and billionaires, has to offer in this moment of crisis. 

Now, a hard-right Conservative Prime Minister delivers his briefing from a podium bearing the words ‘protect the NHS’. The NHS which was the subject of a 451-page dossier that, Jeremy Corbyn revealed four months ago, amounted to the USA seeking ‘total market access’. Trump’s attitude to the Coronavirus reveals a glimpse into how devastating that prospect is. But the changes the government have already been forced to make reveal that it needn’t happen if we organise to protect the NHS now. And we can start right away: sign the petition to support NHS workers’ rights and join the Clap for our Carers on 26 March. 

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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