Socialist Party
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1 April 2020

PPE, tests, full pay - for all now

The number of coronavirus deaths in the UK is now well over 2,000. At least one person is dying every three minutes.

The situation will "get worse before it gets better," says Boris Johnson. Thousands more people will die as the pandemic reaches its peak.

But let's be clear - the enormity of the death toll will not be the fault of the individual actions of ordinary working people. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if the government had acted earlier; and if we hadn't had to endure ten years of brutal austerity in the NHS, social care and other vital services.

Four years ago, a three-day exercise carried out by epidemiologists from Imperial College London - Exercise Cygnus - warned that the NHS would be overwhelmed by a future major flu pandemic; staff would be short of personal protective equipment (PPE), there wouldn't be enough ventilators, and bodies would be overflowing in mortuaries. A nightmare scenario that is now being played out because the government refused to act. The report was never published.

The same Tory government also rejected expert medical advice to expand eye protection for health professionals to cope with a pandemic because it would "substantially increase" the costs of stockpiling.

This and previous Tory governments have always put wealth before health. Hypocritical government ministers join in applauding the very NHS workers who have been denied adequate PPE because of their profit before safety policies.

A survey of medics by the Society of Acute Medicine found only 42% had the right, or enough, PPE. Desperate staff have been forced to buy their own equipment on eBay! Now frontline staff have already started to die from Covid-19. Others are terrified that lack of preparation means that they could be next.

To reduce the spread of coronavirus, isolation and social distancing measures must go alongside mass testing and contact tracing - and this still isn't happening. Care homes are being asked to take in elderly people sent home from hospital to free up beds in the NHS. But these patients haven't been tested for coronavirus, putting the lives of other residents at risk, and the safety of staff who don't have adequate PPE.

Two weeks after the government promised to "ramp up" testing to 10,000 a day, only half that figure was being reached. Germany is testing 500,000 a week. Health officials say it could be weeks before antibody testing is available for NHS staff so that they can know whether it is safe for them to go to work. 25% of doctors are already self-isolating but most have no idea if they have Covid-19 or not.

The priority is clearly health and social care staff, but everyone needs to have access to testing. How can it be possible to have an accurate picture of the spread of infection and know whether lockdown is working if testing is not taking place on a mass scale?

There are 44 labs in the UK which could have been taken over for diagnosing tests but that hasn't happened. The government should have acted much sooner in buying test kits, expanding staff and lab capacity and requisitioning private health facilities. All of that now needs to be massively stepped up, and testing must be free for everyone.

Johnson has issued a "call to action" to manufacturing industry to design and build ventilators for the NHS. But that could take months and even years. A company in Cheshire claims its offer to secure 25,000 ventilators was completely ignored.

In this, and in other areas such as food distribution, the coronavirus crisis is exposing the anarchy of the capitalist market economy and the need for it to be replaced by public ownership and democratic working-class control and planning.

The rapid creation of a potential 4,000 bed hospital in London, and the invention of breathing apparatus which could limit the number of patients needing ventilators, give just a small glimpse of what could happen on a mass scale if the resources of society were not in the hands of a rich minority and could be rationally planned in a democratic way to meet need not profit...

We are constantly told that we are all in this together; that the virus doesn't discriminate - even princes and prime ministers can get it. But while those with a 'serious underlying wealth condition' have no problem getting tested, the rest of us have no idea whether we have the virus or not. While Prince Charles can self-isolate in luxury at Balmoral millions of people are stuck in overcrowded small flats, with no garden and, in many cases, without sufficient food.

And millions more are still being forced to go to work in unsafe workplaces, either because of unscrupulous and penny-pinching bosses, or because they still can't afford not to work. 80% of wages (if you can get it) is a 20% wage cut - a disaster for the low-paid already struggling to get to the end of the month. And, scandalously, the self-employed are being told they will have to wait until June to get their money.

Workers must not pay the price for the coronavirus crisis. All workers forced to self-isolate or not in work should immediately receive 100% of their normal income, and nobody should lose their job. Those already sacked should be reinstated.

No bailouts

There must be no public bailout of the Richard Bransons of this world. If big business say they can't pay up, open the books to the trade unions and workers - let's see where the profits have been going. Nationalise those big corporations which threaten job losses and closures, under democratic workers' control and management.

Up and down the country workers are taking action in the workplaces to defend their health, safety and income, often with little lead from the tops of the trade unions. With union membership on the rise, as workers see the need for defence organisations during this crisis, they should be going on to the offensive. And unions that give a fighting lead now will be laying the basis for the future battles that will be necessary.

Workers must not pay for the coronavirus crisis now. But neither must the bosses and pro-capitalist politicians present us with the bill when it's over - through austerity mark 2 and attacks on jobs, wages and conditions.

This is not just a coronavirus crisis - it is a crisis of the capitalist profit system, which is incapable of protecting the health, living standards and lives of working-class people. Socialism as an alternative way of organising society - eliminating the profit motive and democratically planning to meet the needs of all - has never been more necessary. Join the Socialist Party to fight for a socialist future.