Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, February 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, February 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on Covid-19, the Tories and the real value of workers

It was only a few weeks ago that some around government and its tame media were bragging that Britain’s approach to handling the Covid-19 outbreak, with its emphasis on herd immunity and its slowness to restrict major gatherings, might turn out to be the most successful in Europe. Boris Johnson made a speech in early February where he said the UK would champion the right of nations ‘to buy and sell freely among each other’ despite the pandemic threat. How criminally foolish that now seems.

Even among the normally obsequious press, the criticism of the government is reaching a clamour. The Sunday Times has run a damning exposure of the government, including Johnson’s failure to turn up to five COBRA meetings and his penchant for long weekends away in the country. Testing, which was carried out in the early days of the virus hitting Britain, was abandoned in March. The article is a bombshell under Johnson and his government. It reinforces what many suspected and comes at a time when the failures of the Johnson approach are there for all to see.

Britain now has worse figures for deaths from the virus than the two previously worst affected countries in Europe, Italy and Spain. Those figures – over 14,000 and still climbing – are only part of the story. The number of deaths in care homes is much higher than is being announced and is estimated by some to be as much as 50% of the hospital figures. In addition, there are signs that some GPs are not putting the virus as a cause of death on certificates in a number of cases. So it is probably reasonable to assume already a death rate from the virus of 20,000 or thereabouts.

Included in these deaths are at least 50 NHS workers, very large numbers of them from ethnic minorities, as well as other key workers. This disgrace of a government is putting their lives in harm’s way by its failure to plan properly for the pandemic and by its decade of austerity which has led to shortages of PPE and testing equipment. The regulations have now been changed to allow reuse of PPE because of these shortages. Health workers and social care workers should refuse to accept these changes and demand full testing and protective clothing. No one should be asked to work in such conditions.

The truth is that Johnson and the Tories didn’t want the lockdown. They allowed the Cheltenham races, other sports events and concerts to go ahead, far beyond a time when there was any doubt they were helping the rapid spread of the virus. They are now frightened to lift it because they are worried about what the public will say. Their contempt for ordinary people is so great that they thought there would be a backlash against the lockdown, and they are constantly surprised that instead many are dealing with it and are in support of it as a means of combatting the virus.

That is because most people – especially working-class people who comprise the large majority of society – act collectively and cooperatively in times like these. In addition, for many the lockdown has highlighted that society could be organised differently and better. A survey last week showed that only 9% wanted things to go back to normal.

This is one thing that lies behind the talk from right wingers about lifting the lockdown. Ian Duncan Smith talks about wanting to get business back to normal, and this and the looming economic recession is obviously a major concern for the ruling class. But also of concern is the idea that people are acting on their own initiatives, coming together collectively, thinking in ways that they had not done before. This terrifies them because it brings into question so many ways in which society is presently organised: testing, managerial diktat, appraisal, surveillance, assessment, competition.

All of this seems to have escaped Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, who is ultra-keen to show his responsible loyalty to the gang of charlatans and liars otherwise known as the government. His major question has been where is the exit strategy for the lockdown? But that can only come when there is proper testing and tracing, and when all who need it have protective clothing – issues on which the government has totally failed. Labour’s inability to oppose Johnson will cost it dear – and is letting down the people most at risk here, whether older people in care homes or frontline staff. This is a government which should go – its incompetence has cost thousands of lives, but Labour seems incapable of making that basic point.

It is clear from the way health workers are treated that their safety and welfare remain a low priority. They are not alone – London tube bosses are trying to impose rosters which the unions reject. There is a clamour to reopen schools, despite the obvious dangers and opposition from teachers and many parents. The schools are symbolically important because they would suggest society getting back to normal quickly and would obviously make it easier for some parents to return to work. Business as usual will be the demand of the employers and their friends among politicians.

It should not be our demand. There are many problems with the lockdown including dangers to mental health, domestic violence and the increase in other health problems. But the answer to this is to provide resources which can help deal with these problems both now and in the future. Financial concerns can be met by guaranteeing incomes for all who have lost their livelihoods and ending the punitive universal credit system. When we think about how not going back to normal might work, the essential workers now being praised by everyone should receive a 20% pay rise, an end to outsourcing, full permanent contracts for all who want them and public ownership of care homes, transport and other essential services. To be paid for by tax rises for the rich and corporations, shifting money from arms and military spending, and an end to subsidising privatised companies.

Every demand that we make like these makes it harder for business as usual to return and more likely that working people can have much more of a say in how we run society. These demands will be bitterly resisted by those who tell us now that we’re all in it together. It’s up to us to fight for them.

What is a job worth?

Many people have reflected on the importance of jobs which are regarded as of low value in normal times, but which are generally agreed to be essential now. They are often talked about as unskilled. I think perhaps we should ditch this term – it was once an important distinction in manufacturing industry (although not always a justified one) – but it has now become synonymous with low paid and often casualised work. All work is skilled in the sense that people learn to do things in a particular way, and they know the work.

Childcare is one of the lowest rewarded (and for many not rewarded financially at all) but it requires huge levels of skill. The same is true of catering work, cleaning, shop work and the rest. The value of these jobs in a rich and developed society is consistently underrated and is often carried out by migrant labour which is discriminated against in many other ways.

I hope that out of this crisis we can see an end to the idea among academics and some on the left that these jobs are not valuable. We have been told for decades now that only knowledge workers will matter, and that skills reside in those with higher education and technological qualifications. Networked jobs don’t require physical presence. Journalists and academics, along with those working in management and IT companies, convinced themselves that theirs were the important roles. The ‘unskilled’ have been doomed to be replaced by machines. Now we’re finding that many of the managerial and supervisory roles aren’t anywhere near as important as they have been hyped. In fact, the crisis has exposed weaknesses of management all over the place.

It’s the jobs done by real people in the real world that are proving to be so important in this crisis.

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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’.