Our pressure on the government is working and we must push harder, argues Shabbir Lakha
Facing growing public pressure and a mounting death toll, the government is being forced to make climbdowns – but it’s still not going nearly far or fast enough. Boris Johnson started the week with a strategy of ‘herd immunity’, now the focus is on “pushing down the curve”. This u-turn hasn’t come about mainly by a change in the science as he claims, but by the mass outrage at the abundantly obvious.
Despite the strategy changing, in today’s briefing, Boris Johnson repeatedly claimed the measures now in place were part of a process that began on Monday – it was all in the plan and not a complete 180 from everything they’ve been claiming. And this lays bare the core of the problem. The government’s lack of ownership of its mistakes is precisely because their strategy is driven by economic considerations, not public health. That is what is keeping their response two steps behind what’s urgently needed.
By the time Boris Johnson announced that schools would be closing today – only after massive pressure from teachers and parents – Britain was one of only 3 countries in Europe that hadn’t done this yet. Italy went into full lockdown after the death toll reached 97, the UK’s death toll now stands at 177 and nothing remotely serious is in place. Mapping the rate the death toll has risen from the pandemic shows that the UK is on a much steeper trajectory than Italy, which has now reached 4,032 deaths with 627 killed in the last 24 hours.
There has to be a massive overhaul of the way our lives are organised in order to combat this virus but the government is mainly interested in keeping business going. There are still people who aren’t guaranteed sick pay – or enough to cover their basic costs because of the low level of statutory sick pay – who don’t have a choice but to go in to work. So despite the level of crisis, London Underground trains were still packed this morning.
The government has announced a mortgage holiday for landlords, but no relief for renters. The government announced a stop to evictions and possession proceedings for 3 months, but tenants are still liable to pay rent, whether they’re self-isolating, have lost their job or whatever. As a number of tenants have voiced on social media since the announcement yesterday, they’ve been told if they don’t pay their rent they’ll be taken to court in three months, and will be evicted, forfeit their deposit and be in debt.
Today, Rishi Sunak announced a £7bn injection into the welfare system to increase Universal Credit and working tax credits by up to £1,000 per year. That’s an extra £19 a week. For scale, this new injection is 1.4% of the £500bn that was spent bailing out the banks in 2008.
The centrepiece of today’s economic announcement is that the government will now cover up to 80% of people’s wages up to £2,500 per month if their employer can’t afford to pay them. This was made with an appeal to employers to keep on their staff instead of letting them go. Not requiring them to, but asking them nicely and hoping they do. The scheme will be rolled out by the end of April, and businesses can take out 12 month interest free loans if they need immediate cash to pay wages.
What this means in reality is that businesses aren’t actually required to keep their employees on, and many will choose not to, and if they do want to it’ll take weeks for the government to pay up so it’s up to them to apply for a government loan. It also means that the government would be subsidising companies like Virgin Atlantic and its billionaire bosses who have forced their employees to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave.
The repeated use of “we will get through it together”, “this is a national effort”, “you won’t face it alone” and the like, are all too familiar. It was the same mantra that surrounded ten years of devastating austerity that was borne by working people while the richest profited. It is the same now as it was then.
Nothing said this clearer than Boris Johnson’s podium today reading “Protect the NHS”, while his party’s policies have gutted the NHS and his measures now are leaving it in dire straits. NHS frontline workers are still not being tested or given enough personal protective equipment. Cleaners, porters and other workers in a number of outsourced hospitals are not being paid or given the right equipment. There aren’t enough ventilators, ambulance workers are having to share face masks, Lewisham and Northwick Park Hospitals have had to start transferring patients to other hospitals because there aren’t enough critical care resources.
The government is gambling with our lives. We need solutions that put people first not business. Public pressure is clearly having an impact, we need to step it up.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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