Boris Johnson in Kensington, October 2021. Photo: Flickr/Tim Hammond Boris Johnson in Kensington, October 2021. Photo: Flickr/Tim Hammond

Lindsey German on the pandemic’s persistence and the idiocy of our rulers  

It’s quite remarkable how the government seems determined to repeat all its previous errors over Covid and condemn many of us to illness and possible death this winter. Yet that is exactly what is happening. Every major informed source is saying, in increasingly strident terms, that something has to be done now to cut the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid 19 which is making Britain by far the worst affected country in Europe. Again.

When you have everyone from the medical professional organisations to the TUC to the government’s own advisers saying that the so called ‘plan B’ has to be implemented now, then you might think the government would listen. You would be wrong. Instead Johnson shrugs off the figures and declares everything is fine as long as people keep getting vaccinated. He is echoed by Rishi Sunak, who presents his budget this week, saying that there is no need for future lockdowns or other measures that might damage the economy.

This is the rich and privileged playing with the lives of millions – and with scant regard for the consequences. Working people who are once again being asked to perform their jobs in dangerous and difficult conditions with all the risks that entails are being asked to pay the price.

The contempt for ordinary people and cavalier attitudes to their health was summed up by the grotesquely named minister for care, Gillian Keegan, who said last week that wearing masks should not become a ‘sign of virtue.’ She would say that given that the vast majority of her party’s MPs sat in parliament without wearing masks. Nonetheless, in a week where empirical observation suggested that more people were wearing masks in shops and on transport, it is remarkable how much government opinion lags behind so many people.

Why are they doing it? Partly they reflect the desire of capital to put profit before health and safety. They were determined to lift all restrictions back in July on the ill named ‘freedom day’ in order to open up businesses fully whatever the human cost. We have seen in numerous ways how the priorities of profit have been in opposition to what is best in dealing with the pandemic. The financial help from government to put safety first such as furlough has now all but disappeared.

However there is also a major sense in which the government is in hock to its particularly bigoted backbenchers, many of whom are unreservedly opposed to wearing masks and whose general attitude seems to be that it is everyone for themselves. Johnson will evade any action for as long as possible if it will keep these Neanderthals content. Back in the real world it would seem that the authorities are preparing for Plan B – but Johnson will delay it as long as possible, as he did with the first and second lockdowns.

 This means he is avoiding doing the basic minimum required – enforcing mask wearing in indoor spaces and encouraging social distancing even if this means fewer people in pubs or restaurants. Reliance on vaccination and booster shots is only partly effective, especially given that present levels of administering them have fallen behind those earlier in the year. This reliance obviously depends on individual decisions to have the vaccine rather than how society can collectively ensure greater public health and avoid the risks of Covid 19.

One obvious barrier to this collective endeavour is the state of NHS, where every day we hear stories of missed procedures, hours long waits for ambulances, shortages of GPs, and complete exhaustion on the part of many NHS staff.  Part of this parlous situation is a result of underfunding, privatisation, lack of equipment. But it also reflects a shortage of trained staff, from GPs to nurses, to meet the medical needs required.  This in turn is a product of the short termism common in British capitalism which has been turned into a virtue by the Tories.

The lack of planning and accountability which dominates so much of British society has made the response to coronavirus particularly bad, witnessed by the failure of PPE provision, the poor quality and failure of much testing, the worship of private companies and systematic underfunding of the public sector.  Much of the desire to get ‘back to normal’ means returning to private profit driven business models that don’t work, whether that’s universities selling students extortionate accommodation or city centres relying on masses of office workers to sustain businesses.  

It seems very likely that within weeks the Tories will be pushed into at least ‘plan B’. The anger and resentment at having dragged their feet over this will be much greater then than it was last time. It comes against a background of further attacks on working people, rising rents and house prices, falling real wages as energy prices rocket and inflation grows. We know that Sunak’s budget this week will talk of ‘levelling up’ but will deal with none of these fundamental problems.  

One factor which they and much of the media try to ignore is the growing number of strikes across different industries and an emerging sense among a minority of workers that they have some power which they can use to enforce their claims for better pay and conditions. A large part of this is that since Covid, attitudes to work have changed considerably, with more recognition of the genuinely valuable work done by some of the poorest paid. The shortages of labour in a number of industries also gives those workers some leverage.  

In Scotland, there is the prospect of a strike wave to coincide with the Cop26 conference. My union, UCU, is balloting for strike action over pay, pensions and a range of other issues.

It may be that these stirrings helped prompt the statement from major key worker unions and the TUC about Covid 19. That can only be a good thing. But it needs to go much further to halt the deadly policies of this government – and to protect those key workers who are once again in the firing line. 

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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’.