Richard Branson. Photo: Flickr/Hardo Müller Richard Branson. Photo: Flickr/Hardo Müller

The government’s response to the Coronavirus puts big business first, but we need real solutions that benefit the public instead, argues Richard Allday

Reading Lindsey German’s briefing on Monday, I started thinking through some of the implications.

Tuesday’s papers reported the government has approached the major car producers to see if they can transfer production from cars and vans to ventilators. Cynics might say that this is a bung to an industry already facing short time working before the coronavirus, as a result of the disruption to trade and investment caused by Brexit, and exacerbated by the initial hiatus in exports (from China in particular) caused by the (then distant) outbreak of the coronavirus.

Cynics might further ask: does the Department of Trade and Industry even know what car manufacturers make? There is a clue in the name – CARS minister! As the convenor of one of the Merseyside car plants told me, it is not practicable to be looking at car plants to re-tool from the type of engineering required to build cars and vans to the light (and life-critical) engineering required for producing ventilators. It would take months, he said, to re-jig the lines. It takes weeks to re-tool the lines when they introduce new models of the product they already make, let alone changing the base product itself.

More useful, he said, would be to look at the light engineering firms that produce the components down the supply chain, where the technology, equipment and skillset is already more compatible, and therefore the product would be that much quicker coming off the lines. But, as he then pointed out, that maybe wouldn’t grab the headlines; nor would it play to the interests of the big boys that the Tories are predisposed to protect.

But maybe that is the cynicism coming through. Just as it would take a cynic to see the Tories’ approach to the private health sector as a bung to their buddies. Because the Tories are not saying they will requisition private hospitals. Oh no! I am quite sure they will pay the market price for the use of their facilities – despite the fact that all the expertise, the medical qualifications, the nursing skills, the surgical talent, has been acquired through the state-funded NHS teaching hospitals. Even despite this, the number of bed spaces the private sector can deploy are trivial when compared to the government’s alleged preparation for the worst-case scenario.

But now popular pressure has forced the closure of the schools, all of a sudden there are all those empty classrooms, already equipped with the basic infrastructure to cater for large numbers, together with support staff already equipped with the skills to maintain the clerical needs of a treatment centre, many with the catering infrastructure to at least maintain a basic service – plus providing alternative, but paid, employment to those thousands of ancillary staff otherwise facing an uncertain future, not knowing where their next paycheque is coming from.

Or take the airline industry: Heathrow is one of the biggest industrial complexes in the country. The industry is responsible for the employment of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Major airlines are claiming they face collapse without an immediate injection of financial support from the government. Richard Moriarty (the CEO of the Civil Aviation Authority, the industry regulator) has said: “This is the most challenging period for aviation … we have witnessed. The threat to the survival of some businesses is real the longer this goes on.”

Mr. Moriarty went on to reassure that “we are doing all we can to help airlines, airports and tour operators.” No shit, Sherlock! We’ll look after the big money boys; the workers can look out for themselves!

So it’s just as well that the workers have unions to put their case, because it doesn’t look as if the employers, or the government, or the industry regulator gives (to use a bad pun) a flying f*** about them.

Unite the union represents the vast majority of unionised workers in the Heathrow complex, and have presented a 4-point plan to the employers and government, the first of which is “The government to make contributions to cover workers’ pay, and the consideration of taking a financial stake in airlines and airports” which is fine as far as it goes (and challenges the Tories bigotry, which has few objections to slinging money to their mates, but is ideologically opposed to ‘taking a financial stake’ – smacks too much of nationalisation), but doesn’t go far enough.

With 15,000+ members in the BASSA and Mixed Fleet branches alone, Unite has skin in the game, so it is to be expected that they should have some input. But civil aviation is not just the flight crew and cabin crew. It is not just the engineers, refuellers, baggage handlers etc. There are tens of thousands of workers in the necessary support industries.

Take just one firm for example: Gate Gourmet, which employs upwards of 2,000 workers producing the in-flight catering for most of the major airlines operating out of the UK. If the airline industry crashes, what happens to them? Well – in the event of the NHS having to cope with potentially hundreds of thousands of coronavirus victims, who is going to provide the necessary catering? Save the jobs of the Gate Gourmet workers, and solve one of the major logistical problems for the NHS at the same time. Gate Gourmet is one part of the Gate Group, which also includes Fernley and International Air Services (IAS). The group does not just offer catering services; it includes aircraft cabin cleaning (read: ward/office cleaning and decontamination services); toilet and water servicing (portable toilets and sanitation is much the same whether ground or flight-based); security; passenger services (which includes wheelchair and unaccompanied minor assistance). All skills which are readily transferable to help the NHS in an emergency.

If industry is to receive government aid in its time of trouble, the least we can ask is that our public services get something out of it. The problem is that the people currently making the decisions have such a blinkered view, because of their ideological bigotry, that we are not planning to make the best use of our resources – because they are seen as the private property of the owners of the capital invested in industry.

If we are going to meet the challenge of the coronavirus effectively, we need to force forward our collective view of what is in the interests of the vast majority, and in the process, release the wells of talent that already exist, but are blocked by the vested interests of a tiny minority.

As I finish this article, three items of news were reported which sum up the current contradictions: first was the breathtakingly hypocritical statement by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, that “This is not the time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold” – this the day after the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, had met with ‘teachers leaders’ but pointedly excluded the teachers’ union from the invite. So much for “This is not the time for ideology”!

Second was the news that the Italian government (not known for its socialist leanings) has just (re)nationalised Alitalia, the Italian equivalent of BA – not, apparently, an option for this ‘unideological’ laissez-faire government.

The third announcement, which sent shivers down my spine, was the blasé statement from the Transport department that – to help the logistics industry in this crisis – they are lifting the statutory restrictions on drivers’ hours for the duration. So, in the interests of public health, they are proposing to increase the hours hauliers can demand from their drivers – who already regularly work 15-hour shifts.

A far simpler – and safer – alternative would be to requisition the industry, cut out the wasted empty journeys caused by rival hauliers competing, insist on the primacy of delivering essential goods and services, instead of the current approach, which is that the highest payer takes priority. But maybe it’s just my ideological bigotry that thinks public need should take priority over private greed.  

The above examples just scrape the surface of what is needed, but they are just initial thoughts on some solutions to some of the problems we will face. I have absolutely no doubt that readers of Counterfire will be able to come up with more wide-ranging, more creative, and probably more effective solutions. But we need to start shouting them now, before coronavirus is seen as just another opportunity to make money by the likes of the Richard Bransons of this world.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.