Tories cost workers’ lives
a feature by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
Lions led by donkeys in the war on C-19
· “Lions led by donkeys” was the wildly popular insult levelled at incompetent, aloof Generals as they threw masses of soldiers into senseless slaughter during the First World War, before that the Crimean War, and indeed back in the days of the Roman empire.
This bitter epithet was especially appropriate after the industrial scale of slaughter at the Battle of the Somme, when about 125,000 working class soldiers under General Haig’s command met their end, in the 1914-18 war in which 200 Generals in total died.
The government, media, the Queen—even Dame Vera Lynn—are relentless in their wartime references during this horrendous Covid-19 (C-19) crisis, attempting to cultivate a cross-class British war-nationalism.
Anybody who has a heart would loudly and emotionally applaud the heroism of the NHS staff (of all grades), the care workers, the ambulance staff, the food retail workers, the bin collectors, the posties, the transport staff and a host of others who are putting their lives on the front line to mind the sick and vulnerable and feed the people, keeping lifeline services afloat in this unprecedented crisis. Such workers are indeed warriors against the killer virus.
Hypocritical Tory applause
Conscious of the mass popular support these heroic people enjoy, the same Tory charlatans who cheered wildly and waved their ‘order papers’ in Westminster—in June 2017—at their defeat of proposals to give NHS workers and firefighters a pay rise, are now standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street clapping. Conmen feigning admiration for the same workers they chose to shackle in poverty pay and decimate the jobs of.
But looking behind the headlines and fine-sounding promises, the Tories are in serious danger of being dubbed donkeys ‘leading’ these lions.
Lack of PPE
In actual wars, lack of boots and equipment, as well as strategic incompetence, were central sources of fury at the pampered class of Generals, as the poor bloody infantry were sacrificed.
In this war against the virus, frontline staff are having their lives put at risk by lack of equipment, and needless deaths have been caused by a lack of timely government preparation.
This on top of decades of callous vandalism towards the NHS in particular, and the fear, poverty and insecurity created for millions in low-paid jobs, which drives people to go to work at huge risk to themselves and countless others.
Until recently, the term PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) was only familiar to those of us who are union representatives; now it’s become everyday speech.
But supplies of appropriate PPE are horrendously short of targets set, and equally to the point, of totally inappropriate quality in many sectors where they’re most needed.
This life-threatening shortage of frontline equipment long pre-dates the outbreak of C-19.
New, explosive documents just published prove that back in June 2017 the Tory government blocked demands for “eye protection for all hospital, community, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients,” as recommended by Nervtag, a body set up in 2015 to combat “the new and emerging threat from respiratory viruses.”
It was blocked on the grounds it would cost too much. That was the same month they blocked the pay rise for nurses and others.
Whatever it takes?!
In the current crisis, we’re treated to constant repetition of the dirty lie that the Tory government will do “whatever it takes”.
Instead of listening to the warnings issued by epidemiologists and other scientists, as far back as early January, in the wake of the Wuhan epidemic, the Tories made no thorough preparations, did next to nothing to organise mass production of PPE and medical equipment—whether masks, goggles, visors, shields, surgical wipes and hand sanitisers, ventilators or ICU beds—and scorned the notion of mass testing to trace, isolate and stem the tidal spread of the deadly virus.
Indeed, after a short-lived and pitifully limited exercise in testing NHS staff and others, in mid-March they turned to the monstrous, Darwinian theory of ‘herd immunity’—of letting the virus rip through the population and infect at least 70-80 per cent of people, in the (scientifically unconfirmed) hope it would make ‘the herd’ immune—at the appalling cost of at least 500,000 to a million deaths.
‘Herd immunity’ strategy wrong
The editor of the authoritative Lancet medical journal, Richard Horton, recently wrote a scathing condemnation of this strategy, which he held responsible for deaths:
“I don’t see much evidence [in government documents] from the public health community, or the clinical community. We thought we could have a controlled epidemic.
“We thought we could manage it over March and April, build up herd immunity and that way protect people.
“The reason why that strategy was wrong is it didn’t recognise the 20 per cent of people infected who would end up with severe critical illness. The evidence was there at the end of January.”
Stumbling back in retreat from the furious backlash, the government started belated moves towards the current lockdown, and pledged 250,000 tests a day on 25 March.
Then on 2 April they downgraded this promise to 100,000 a day by the end of April. But the harsh reality is a mere 10,000 daily tests. And those are primarily tests of patients already hospitalised.
Likewise, they’ve imitated the worst incompetence and indifference to the lives of those workers on the frontline displayed by 1914-18 Generals, in their lack of provision of PPE, including masks, scrubs or visors.
Dangerous Scottish Government nonsense
We’ve witnessed the grotesque desperation of NHS professionals buying snorkels in sports shops to have them converted into surgical masks, in some cases with the help of 3-D printers in their homes. Or of donning school science goggles to ‘protect’ them from the deadly disease.
Nor have the Scottish Government been blameless. Their Chief Nursing Officer, with the full backing of Nicola Sturgeon, this week spread fear and fury amongst home and social care workers when she declared they only need face masks when clients have proven C-19 symptoms.
Otherwise, they both insisted, gloves and aprons are adequate. It took ferocious lobbying by the unions to get that dangerous nonsense reversed, with a new directive that they should have face masks for use at all times.
Workers’ unity and solidarity
The workers in key, essential services and those on furlough or made penniless by unscrupulous bosses laying them off, can have no trust in big employers or the current government to guarantee their lives or livelihoods.
We shouldn’t be fooled by Tories wearing NHS badges or clapping on a Thursday night.
It will take the collective power, and the spirit of human solidarity on display by the million who’ve volunteered to help in the C-19 crisis, to ensure the virus is beaten and then that there is no going back to the rotten, unequal, repressive and class-ridden society we suffered before the Coronavirus crisis.
Unity to fight virus
Those in power have shown the truth of the phrase of past generations: we are indeed ‘lions led by donkeys’. But we also need to learn other historic lessons.
After all, the upper-class rulers who promised the bloodied soldiers who survived the First World War ‘homes fit for heroes’ were the same people who readily and ruthlessly sent troops and tanks into Glasgow in 1919, to quell the revolt of workers and the unemployed that threatened their profits and power.
We need unity to fight off this terrible virus, but not unity with the Tories or profiteers who put the health of their bank balance before the health of workers who make the wealth for the rich to take.
Voices from the front line
Jack, the care worker
I work in residential care for disabled people, those with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. They have cancelled all outreach care for non-essential clients. In other words, withdrawn care for those living in families.
Most of the workers on zero contracts are getting absolutely no shifts. On PPE, for a period we only had gloves and aprons, which we always have.
Up until a week ago we had no masks. In the house, they gave us dust masks, one box of them, which we had to take just one of each. Even though on the box it says single use only. And they’re not NHS masks, just dust masks.
On social distancing, on some shifts it’s two people for one client and you just can’t leave them sitting there.
You need to make dinner, clean up and so on, so the reality is you cannot really do social distancing.
Withdrawal of support for those living in families means the likes of no respite support. It’s shit that people are left to fend for themselves.
A rail worker
The trains are almost empty. For example, mostly no NHS workers are on them. For us the issues include use of taxis for staff between jobs. We want black cabs with one passenger and a screen, or at the very least eight-seater mini-buses.
On training, the unions wanted none. We do need some, for example if we end up carrying freight to the likes of hospitals.
So, in Scotland, the union got an agreement that if one of either the trainee or manager or trainer objects, then there won’t be any training in the cab.
We’ve now got hand gel although it was very slow to arrive.
Unions never so necessary: matters of life and death
· It’s taken lobbying by union leaders, and in many cases defiant action including strikes by workers, to belatedly force the most basic safety measures on far too many employers.
• Binmen in Polmadie, Glasgow occupied the canteen before they got basic washing facilities and hand gels.
• Posties in Alloa and elsewhere came out on strike to enforce social distancing and get hand gels provided.
• Building workers in various parts of the UK downed tools on safety issues, including the cessation of work on luxury homes, when social distancing is impossible on a building site.
• Workers in the biggest private employer in Northern Ireland, Moy Park, walked out on strike demanding safety measures.
• Bus drivers in London were threatened with disciplinary action unless they stopped shutting and sealing the front doors to try and keep a distance from passengers, even though nine of their co-workers had by then died of C-19. Their defiance subsequently forced transport bosses to concede that bus passengers only enter by the middle door.
• In retail every company has had to be lobbied and hounded by unions to win safety measures, including belated supplies of hand gels, social distancing, screens, and closure of non-essential, non-food retail.
Government guidelines have been quite deliberately vague on what firms should shut as part of the health-driven lockdown and subsidised furlough of workers. Their emphasis is on what they misleadingly call ‘the economy’—which more accurately means ‘the profits’ for those who own most of it—rather than people’s health.
Sports Direct bosses had the audacity to ask for permission to stay open on the grounds sports wear is essential to the health and well being of the population during this pandemic. Not even the Tories could dodge public outrage by agreeing to that.
But they’ve granted permission, and indeed encouraged, the continuation of online sales and deliveries in other non-essential retail companies.
That might sound innocuous, but it risks the health of workers in logistics, warehouses, delivery vans and postal workers—on the spurious grounds that things like home furnishings are ‘essential to the comfort of people in their homes’! And it’s still happening in many non-food retail stores.
Beware of ‘Immunity Passports’
Whilst being far too slow to act, and far too partial to the pleadings of profiteering giants who put sales before workers’ health, there is now a growing danger that the government is softening up the population for dangerous, premature returns to work.
We’ve heard a lot about antibody tests, allegedly to identify people who have had the virus and built up immunity to it. As early as 24 March, Hancock boasted they had bought 3.5 million of these magic kits. BoJo himself declared this antibody testing would be “a complete game changer”.
In fact, the government has now bought 17.5 million of them. But there’s one, profoundly dangerous problem: according to the government’s Testing Chief himself, in a statement this week, none of them is good enough to use!
The Institute of Biomedical Science reinforces this judgement, warning of “huge issues with their reliability. Spain is now completely withdrawing their use despite buying millions of them. At least 10 per cent of those tested and found to be immune will not be.”
At least one version has been found to suffer “a 75 per cent rate of inaccuracy”! With callous disregard for the facts and its horrendous consequences to workers’ lives, the Tory ‘Health’ Secretary has started wild talk about an “Immunity Passport” to get people back to work.
And as we write, the Tory government’s chief science adviser, who leads their modelling on the disease, has blurted out suggestions of lifting the lockdown “because of its harm to the economy and health,” instead allowing people to catch the virus to build up… herd immunity!
Trade unions have never been so essential to workers’ lives. Without the efforts of union reps, activists and the best of their officials, many more lives would have been jeopardised and lost already.
Unions battling to save lives
That includes not only the pressure unions have had to apply to the Tories, and the owners of many big corporations, but also the Scottish Government and local councils. Demands for proper provision of PPE, and stricter guidelines on what is and is not an essential job during the health-driven lockdown, are just two examples where unions are battling to save lives.
And the alarming talk of reverting to the social Darwinism of ‘herd immunity’, the survival of the fittest regardless of numbers thereby condemned to death, means we need to be on maximum alert.
Whilst there is still a long road to travel in winning measures like proper PPE for all at work; closure of non-essential workplaces to help implement social distancing; 100 per cent average pay for workers put on furlough; and rehiring of those made redundant, the collective strength of the organised working class also needs to be ready to stop moves towards a premature, life-threatening return to work.
Any such ‘Immunity Passports’, based on the current, totally discredited antibody tests, but actually driven by the desire to revive production for profit, would be an inexcusable Passport to Death for countless workers.
Voices from the front line
Jenny, the nurse
I usually work in a general Ward but now I’m in one that only deals with C-19 queries and positive cases. This week has started to fill up with patients, and we’ve had roughly one person die each day. How do I feel? Terrible. Before patients come to the Ward, decisions are made whether they are to be given resuscitation or ICU, or just Ward care. It’s based on the age and past medical history of the person.
For example, with older people with COPD, asthma or diabetes a lot of the time you can’t do much for them. It’s as if you just watch them die. But they go really fast. Normally when people die, you’re told a few days before that it’s likely, but these C-19 patients rapidly deteriorate.
For example, I was on nights, a woman was fine at the start, but by the morning she died 10 minutes after my shift ended. It’s grim. It’s nothing like I’ve ever dealt with. It’s really sad. Because if it hadn’t been for this C-19 they would go to a high dependency unit (HDU) or have intervention. It really gets to you.
‘We wash our uniforms at home’
PPE? We use a fluid-resistant surgical mask and normal aprons and gloves. We now also wear goggles, but whether that protects us is a different question. I’ve had blood on my arms and uniform. Another nurse has had vomit on her skin and uniform.
All because there’s not enough scrubs. The worst thing is that means we have to take the uniform home, because there’s not enough scrubs to protect the uniform. Bringing them home means we’re exposing our family to it.
If people are on ventilators or really coughing and spluttering on ICU, you gown up and put on FM masks—the big ones—hairnets, visors and gloves up to the elbow. You wear all that for four hours and then take a break. But otherwise we only have normal surgical masks.
We all get changed, bag up our uniform and take it to the washing machine at home. We all would prefer to be in proper scrubs and leave uniforms in the hospital, because the virus lays on surfaces for 72 hours so it’s in there when we take clothes home.
We didn’t always have goggles. It’s only a few days ago. Aprons and gloves are normal. We get more surgical masks now but there’s still a shortage—we don’t get the supply that’s needed.
What do I think of Boris Johnson clapping us? People on the streets applauding us is really appreciated—but when it comes to Boris Johnson maybe he could put our wages up or put something into the NHS.
Lots of staff have self-isolated. They’ve never been tested. Those with symptoms should be, so they know whether to be off work or not. They don’t know whether they’ve got it, and 14 days is a long time not to have staff members at work. We’ve been able to test patients—so why not staff?
C-19: profiting from death
“This is a once in a generation opportunity. History has shown us that super normal returns can be made during this type of environment.” – City Fund Manager
· As Edwin Starr sang 50 years ago, “War, huh—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”
Actually, for a tiny privileged minority, wars are very good—for profit. Arms manufacturers and others make a fortune on the backs of human suffering and slaughter. And what applies to war also applies to pestilence.
In the frightening crisis of C-19, it’s still a case of us and them. Of losers and winners. Thousands of workers—belatedly recognised as heroes—are literally putting their lives on the line for the greater good of fellow-humans and society.
Care workers are sleepless in dread of carrying the virus into their own families, or of infecting the vulnerable people they care for.
Millions of workers suffer terrible uncertainty about their job prospects. Millions more have had wage cuts or at best have to wait until the end of April to get wages through the government Coronavirus Job Retention scheme.
Millions are locked up in cramped or high-rise flats, often with young children, ramping up the costs of eating, heating or Internet, which particularly wallops those already on poverty incomes.
£10k costs award… for MPs!
For others it’s an entirely different planet. British MPs have just been awarded an additional £10,000 for the costs of working from home. But that’s as nothing compared to the fortunes being amassed by some big businesses and their giant shareholders behind the grisly statistics of death.
MP for the 18th century, Jacob Rees Mogg, owns over 15 per cent share in Somerset Capital Management. He enjoyed at least £1million of the £19.5million profit they made last year.
But he and this bunch of vulture capitalists stand to make a fortune out of the C-19 crisis. One of their top dogs has just enthused that “this is a once in a generation opportunity” for investors, explaining “History has shown us that super normal returns can be made during this type of environment.”
They are offering speculators the chance of 500 per cent gains when they invest in company shares currently in free fall—including private hospitals and pharmacies as far afield as Brazil and South Africa—in the belief they will bounce back after the virus clears.
The demand for Amazon deliveries has rocketed to such an extent they’ve had to put delays on non-essential purchases. Even before this surge of income, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, had a personal fortune of US$113billion.
As he recently stated, “The only way I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.”
By obnoxious contrast, this, the largest retail company on earth, only offered workers two weeks sick leave if tested positive for C-19.
But if they can’t access tests (which are nearly impossible to get) but have the symptoms they were forced to take unpaid leave. It took workers’ courageous strike action in the US to shift this position.
Tesco’s turbocharged profits
Another example of profit from pestilence is even closer to home. Tesco is the biggest of the Big Four supermarkets. Panic buying boosted their sales by 30 per cent.
Such has been the demand that the same company which has thrown about 15,000 staff on the scrapheap in the past year has been obliged to take on 45,000 temporary recruits.
In a glimpse of how big business is tied in with government, the latter provided Tesco’s with an initial list of 110,000 people to contact for home deliveries.
Although they’ve increased home delivery slots by 20 per cent they can’t keep up with demand. All of which is good for the company bottom line.
On a world scale, Tesco sales up to 29 February 2020—before the C-19 leap in demand—were valued at £56.5billion pounds. And £44.9billion in the UK alone. Their operating profits jumped by 13.5 per cent last year to £3billion.
But still they rattle the begging bowl. Tesco’s have just been granted £585million in business rates holidays and tax breaks by the government—which is in stark contrast to the millions of self-employed and freelancers you can’t get any money until June, or the battalions of small businesses which are unlikely to reopen after the virus.
After getting that huge lump sum from the public purse, Tesco this week handed out £900million in dividends to their shareholders. So public funds are subsidising dividends to the rich. In fact, Tesco plan to pay out a further £5billion to shareholders in the second half of 2020.
Who says war or pestilence doesn’t pay for an obscenely privileged minority?
People’s sickness, whether physical or mental, is another healthy source of profit for the privileged. One of the reasons the NHS is under siege during C-19 is privatisation for profit of whole chunks of the service.
Sick profiteering from the NHS
In England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to MPs “There is no privatisation of the NHS on my watch”.
On the contrary, in 2018 a record £9.2billion was taken out of the NHS budget and given to private companies such as Virgin Care and Priory mental health group; an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year.
About 30 per cent of all mental health spending was in the private sector and 44 per cent of all expenditure on children’s and adolescent mental health. Likewise, one third of all hip operations are paid for in the private sector.
Priory Group, the biggest mental health provider, skims 52 per cent of it’s £800million income from the NHS.
On top of which, we have the grotesque profiteering at the expense of public health through the myriad of PFI schemes and their successor Scottish Futures Trust. In Scotland alone that costs £8billion that could transform staffing, urgent research and vital equipment for staff and patients in the besieged NHS.
PFI daylight robbery
PFI was initiated by the Tories, but massively enlarged under Blair’s New Labour government. A recent report on its effect on the NHS in England underlines the outrageous daylight robbery by the rich it entails.
For an initial £13billion investment, by the time repayments on the leases end in 2050, a whopping £80billion will have been handed over to these private consortia by NHS England. That’s an outlandish case of buying just over six hospitals but getting only one!
Now we have the obscenity of the government paying these private companies £300 a day for every bed that they bring into service for the Corona crisis; £2.4million a day in total.
And the new Nightingale hospital in London is costing the NHS £3million a month in charges by Abu Dahabi owners of the converted ExCel centre, after it amassed £31million profit in the previous 12 months. Instead of propping up the profit margins of these leeches, private health facilities should be commandeered for the Corona crisis and made an integrated component of the NHS—permanently!
Nationalise don’t subsidise profit
We’ve had decades of state subsidised profiteering. Decades of systematic wage cuts to turbocharge profit margins. Decades of ruthless anti-union measures to suppress the share of wealth going back to wages and public services.
Now we have state largesse being meted out to a queue of begging billionaires in the form of tax breaks, government-backed banking loans and the Coronavirus Job Retention subsidy.
It’s absolutely right that the state intervenes to protect workers’ jobs and workers’ wages—and that’s been the demand of socialists and trade unions. But many of the companies taking advantage of government funds to furlough their workers are not dipping into their own deep pockets to top up the wages by the remaining 20 per cent.
Public money / public ownership
Some of the biggest retail giants on earth, for instance, are only offering furloughed workers 80 per cent to 90 per cent of their wage—despite big savings on operational overheads plus government tax holidays.
Instead of limitless generosity towards the biggest profiteers, with no enforcement mechanisms to ensure the taxpayers’ funding means 100 per cent wages for workers and rehiring of recently redundant workers on full pay, the government should seize control of what they’re paying for.
Public ownership should follow the public money. State handouts to these giants should not only be accompanied by insistence on work or full pay for workers, but also big enterprises should be taken into democratic public ownership. The unions should demand that the government nationalise for the public good, not just subsidise private profit.
Voices from the front line
Michelle, the supermarket worker
The biggest single issue is abuse towards staff. Every single day one of us gets abuse. I’ve never known anything like it.
I was accused of barking orders like Hitler because a man didn’t want to stand behind the line marking a distance from the till. Then I spotted he was wearing a ‘Britain First’ badge!
There are also good people, shopping for the elderly and vulnerable. It’s the elderly with nobody to look out for them I feel for.
The supermarkets were too slow with screens, lines at checkouts and social distancing.
There was no social distancing in the middle of March. Massive crowds of people were at each other’s backs, and I’ve never seen anything like it for empty shelves. Not even during the foot and mouth disease. It was worse for crowds than Christmas.
There were no sanitizers or wipes and you’re not allowed to take your own in. Later on they brought in giant bottles of it, when they were finally sourced. They’re bringing in masks and gloves this week, but do they work? Many people say they don’t.
Management don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Special shopping times for NHS workers was at 7pm until 8pm. Now they’re going to be 6pm to 7pm, when NHS workers finish or start work at 7pm.
‘Staff should have visors’
Shop-floor staff don’t get the protection they need at the likes of kiosks. They don’t have screens.
You go into the chemist, they have screens, full visors, and you’re not allowed near the counter.
But in supermarkets there are far bigger crowds and we don’t have that. I think supermarket staff should have visors.
If it wasn’t for the abuse, in some ways people would enjoy work more than normal. The restrictions on shopping and the arrangements with queues are helpful. Although it varies greatly in different shops. People are saying we should keep the screens after this virus is all over.
We got a profit share this month of about £100 and we’re promised a 6 per cent quarterly Coronavirus bonus for the next year. If they can afford that why can’t they afford a decent pay rise? Why couldn’t they afford the £10 an hour minimum the union asks for?
A home care worker
My daughter is a home care worker. She was given four masks and told to only wear them in houses with confirmed C-19. How do they know which house has it when it takes 10 days to incubate?
Management are not calling carers to inform them the houses they have previously been to have C-19. My daughter put in overtime even though she had already worked 30 days without a day off, out of dedication. When she checked on the rota it said C-19 in the house she’d been into the previous week. But nobody had contacted her to let her know.
Without proper PPE, these key workers are going to carry it from one house to another. Two of her clients have recently been tested positive. Glasgow City Council didn’t even ring her to say.
A psychiatric nurse
I’m a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. There’s no real PPE. There’s one hand sanitizer in the whole office where four or five people sit around the table. We have team meetings of 15 or more in one room, where social distancing is impossible. That’s in a hospital where we’ve had patients who’ve died of C-19.
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