This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
As coronavirus deaths continue to mount at a terrifying rate – the UK Tory government’s responsibility for worsening the crisis is becoming clearer every day.
We are reading heartbreaking stories of NHS staff dying in growing numbers because the personal protective equipment (PPE) promised by the government is not reaching them, or is not up to scratch.
In Southend University Hospital in Essex, a nurse was taken into intensive care just days after staff warned about the lack of PPE. Scandalously, medical staff in some hospitals have been threatened with losing their jobs if they speak out about PPE shortages on social media.
The testing chaos is far from being resolved. In March, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told us that 10,000 people a day would be tested for coronavirus. Three weeks later only half that number was being reached. We were still being assured, however, that not only would 10,000 daily tests be carried out, but that the figure would be “ramped” up to 25,000 by mid-April.
Now, we’re expected to believe that health secretary Matt Hancock has finally ‘got it’, and that 100,000 people a day will be tested by the end of the month. Testing manufacturers say they were “blindsided” by his announcement, and that the target is unlikely to be met.
After weeks of lies and broken promises, putting lives seriously at risk, it’s no wonder that trust and confidence in the government is falling. 67% think the government has handled the crisis badly and only 26% think it is doing well, according to a recent YouGov survey.
Last week even the most pro-Tory papers were slamming the testing fiasco. “Questions without answers” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph, while the Daily Mail wrote about the “shocking testing scandal”.
Every day there has been a different excuse from the government – a shortage of swabs, a lack of chemical reagents, not enough processing labs, and so on. But one by one their excuses have been demolished by the facts.
Leading scientific institutions have spoken out about their offers of testing facilities being turned down or ignored. Oxford University Dunn School of Pathology, for example, offered 119 testing machines, but only one was accepted. Anthony Costello, former director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), has spoken about the 44 registered virology labs that could have been used for analysing tests, but were not.
The main reason for the lack of testing, and the criminal shortage of PPE, is successive Tory and New Labour governments prioritising profits over health. As far back as 2005, a WHO document advised countries to get ready for mass testing to cope with a future pandemic, but that advice was ignored.
Commenting on this, Professor Graham Medley, a senior government adviser said: “You can say it was a mistake or you can say the government didn’t want to invest millions of pounds into something that is about preparedness”. Exactly.
The Financial Times was just as hard-hitting: “A decade of government-enforced austerity in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash had put the NHS under immense strain… By the standards of European counterparts, the NHS is badly underfunded, with fewer doctors and nurses, fewer hospital beds, and fewer precious ventilators.”
In early March some limited community testing was being carried out. But that was scrapped on 12 March when the government chose to go along with the strategy of ‘herd immunity’ – letting up to 60% of the population get coronavirus so that some immunity could be acquired, rather than trying to suppress it through a lockdown, as in Wuhan and Italy.
There’s no doubt that profit lay behind that decision and dictated which scientific advice the Tories accepted. They wanted to keep the economy going so that their friends in big business could keep their profits flowing. It was only four days later, when modelling from Imperial College London warned that this strategy could overwhelm the NHS, and lead to 250,000 deaths, that they abruptly changed course.
By then other countries like South Korea and Germany were testing thousands of people a day. Britain was ‘at the back of the queue’, scrambling around in a dog-eat-dog world market in competition for testing equipment, PPE and ventilators.
These international ‘mask wars’, with supplies for the German police, for example, being ‘hijacked’ by the US in mid-flight from China, glaringly expose the anarchy of a capitalist system based on profit and cut-throat competition. Nationally and internationally the coronavirus crisis is once again bringing to the fore the ideas of democratic socialist planning as an alternative to capitalist market chaos.
The testing scandal in Britain has not only exposed the deadly effects of austerity and an NHS ruled by cost-cutting. The delays in taking decisive action over testing equipment, and the chaotic response and failure to coordinate existing NHS facilities, have also revealed the inefficiency and incompetence of a bureaucratic, top-down health service, in which the rules of the private market increasingly dominate.
The need for democratic control and oversight of a fully-funded public NHS by health workers, together with representatives of service users and the wider workers’ movement, which the Socialist Party has consistently campaigned for, has been made crystal clear from the corona crisis.
The private facilities currently being paid for with public money should be immediately incorporated into the NHS with no compensation paid to the profiteers. Securing PPE, testing equipment, ventilators, treatments and a vaccine cannot be left to appeals to private business and the capitalist free market.
The real cooperation and democratic planning needed to fight this and future crises will require the pharmaceutical companies, the big engineering and industrial companies, as well as the banks and financial institutions being taken into public ownership under the democratic control and management of working people.
Pursuit of profit
The pursuit of profit also explains why even the government’s friends are turning on it over the question of testing. With scientists saying that a Covid-19 vaccine is 12-18 months away, mass testing, tracing and isolating people who have the virus is the only ‘exit strategy’ from a general lockdown. Big business is terrified – not about the loss of life from coronavirus, but the loss of profits if lockdown goes on for months.
And they are clearly also worried about the unrest that could develop if the lockdown is prolonged. Not just ‘lockdown fatigue’, with people fed up of being stuck at home, often in cramped and overcrowded conditions, without an end in sight, but protests over food shortages and poverty, which are now beginning to take place in the south of Italy.
In Italy, big business initially resisted the closure of non-essential industry – endangering the health and safety of millions of workers. Strikes, walkouts and pressure from workers themselves forced the bosses and the government to back down. But now political representatives of the bosses are pushing again for industry to be reopened.
Here, there will be similar pressure from those who, in defence of their own economic interests, say ‘the cure is worse than the disease’. And the government will try to blame a lengthy lockdown and rising death toll on individuals not respecting social distancing, to deflect from the real reason – its incompetence and failed profits-first strategy.
Workers in construction, Royal Mail and other industries have already challenged grasping bosses and management putting profits before health and safety. There must be no ‘trade-off’ between our health and their wealth. Any attempts to prematurely restart the economy, endangering health and lives, must be resisted – through strike action if necessary.
The union leaders have for the most part been invisible during this crisis. They should be going onto the offensive demanding everything necessary for workers to withstand a lockdown:
- 100% of normal wages paid directly to workers, not through the bosses
- Rent and mortgages written off for the duration of the crisis
- No redundancies. Companies threatening closure to be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management
- An immediate increase in the minimum wage to at least £12 an hour (£15 in London) – low-paid key workers deserve a decent wage rise
- Benefits to be increased in line with the minimum wage – no delay in payments
Nothing will ever be the same again after this crisis. But we know from the 2008-09 world economic recession, the bank bailouts and the vicious austerity that followed, that the capitalists will be looking once again to make us foot the bill.
This time the effects of the crisis will be even more severe. That’s why it’s so important that we organise now, in the workplaces, communities and virtual spaces to resist any current attacks on our health, safety and living standards – but also to prepare for the battles that will be necessary after coronavirus.
The Socialist Party offers a programme to fight back, a means of organising, and the prospect of a socialist alternative to the rotten capitalist system whose failings the coronavirus crisis has so clearly laid bare.