As the Covid death toll crosses 100,000, these are some of the urgent demands the labour movement should be making on the government:
1Close all non-essential workplaces. The current lockdown is far weaker than the first lockdown despite the far higher number of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths. One of the main reasons for this is that the government has left it up to businesses to decide whether or not people can ‘reasonably’ work from home. Nobody should be leaving their home for work which is not essential.
Businesses must be mandated to either ensure their employees can work from home or furlough them and close – immediately. All parents and carers who can’t work because of caring responsibilities must be furloughed, and the furlough must be raised to 100% of pay.
2Close nursery and early years settings now. Schools were closed after the NEU made clear that schools were not safe, the same applies to the nursery and early years settings. Transmission chains need to be broken urgently, and children being packed in nursery classrooms allows the virus to spread between households and puts teachers at risk.
3Requisition private hospital beds and equipment. Over 35,000 people are currently hospitalised and almost 3,500 on ventilation. Hospitals are at breaking point. Patients are being treated in hospital corridors and in ambulances in car parks. Some hospitals have started reducing the amount of oxygen being given to patients on ventilators because supplies are low. This is unacceptable. Hospital beds, ventilators, other equipment and PPE that are not being used in private facilities should be employed into the NHS immediately at zero cost.
4Vaccinate quickly and effectively. The vaccine roll-out is far too slow. The longer it takes to vaccinate the population, the more people will die and the greater the chance for further mutations of the virus. Vaccine centres should be opened in more locations, should be open 24 hours, and should be deployed by mobile units. Maximum volunteer numbers can be achieved by paying people to administer the vaccine.
The vaccine providers themselves have warned that the up-to-12 week delay between first and second doses and potential mix-and-match between the three approved vaccines risks diminishing the effectiveness of the vaccine. The government must ensure the minimum gap between first and second doses and that the same vaccine is used for both doses.
5House all homeless people. The first lockdown showed how perfectly possible it is to ensure all rough sleepers are accommodated. With a greater level of infection and sub-zero temperatures, it is even more imperative that homeless people are housed immediately.
6Bring back the eviction ban. The government’s new eviction ban allows landlords to evict tenants who have accrued 6 months of rental arrears including during the pandemic. This leaves millions of people who have lost their incomes as a result of the crisis vulnerable to eviction. The original eviction ban must be reinstated and financial support must be made available for renters.
7End the private rip-off. The government has handed over billions of pounds in contracts to private companies with links to the Conservative Party who have failed to deliver. The latest example is the meagre and substandard food parcels being given to hungry children. It has to end. These contracts and new contracts should be given to the public and non-profit sectors instead. Food distribution can be far more efficiently and cost-effectively handled by the existing network of non-profit food banks, for example.
8Ensure safe education for all children. It is entirely counterproductive for the government to list disadvantaged children who don’t have access to laptops/devices or a proper internet connection as ‘vulnerable’ and send them into school. The government should be ensuring the smallest possible numbers of children are physically in school. They must instead ensure that these resources are provided to the children immediately. And we know it’s doable if the government wanted to; Gavin Williamson rejected an offer from BT to provide free or cheap internet for thousands of families.
9Increase Universal Credit. Millions of people are reliant on Universal Credit because of unemployment and shielding because they’re at risk. The standard allowances are a fraction of the living wage and not nearly enough to live on. This must be increased substantially and the benefit cap and two-child limit must be scrapped.
10A Zero-Covid Strategy. After infection rates went down following the first wave of the virus, the government hastily removed restrictions, drove people back to work and had no system to minimise the spread of the virus in place. That’s what got us to this point now. We cannot let it happen again. We cannot leave lockdown without a functioning test and trace system including at borders, proper health and safety regulations across all workplaces and education settings and statutory sick pay increased to the living wage so workers can afford to self-isolate.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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