The Covid crisis has drawn out grotesque levels of inequality in society. In the face of generation-defining challenges, only a united labour movement response based on radical solutions to tackle this inequality can save our communities.
The rampant inequality that we see today was driven by a brutal austerity agenda and the political ideology of shrinking the state and selling it off to the highest bidder. This meant we couldn’t have been in a worse position when the global pandemic hit. The catastrophic mix of the rising cost of living, the lowest wage growth since the Victorian era and a National Health Service already creaking at the seams has been devastating.
The consequences of this is that in areas plagued with some of the worst levels of inequality, the impact of Covid has been substantially worse. It’s the poorest communities up and down the country that have borne the biggest brunt of the pandemic and it should come as no surprise that according to the ONS, England’s poorest areas have suffered more than twice as many deaths as the richest. None of this has happened by accident; it’s the inevitable outcome of a society based on so much inequality.
Staggeringly, the person who bears more responsibility than anyone else for austerity and the misery it caused, David Cameron, claimed that the savage cuts meant we were better prepared when the pandemic struck. “Covid-19 was the rainy day we had been saving for,” he said, “our actions meant that the next but one administration was able to offer an unprecedented package of measures to prop up the economy.” After all the devastation the pandemic has brought, these comments are as clear an indication you will see that the Tories couldn’t care less about ordinary people in this country.
The austerity that has been baked into our communities for so long has been disastrous, but so has the recklessness and incompetence of this government during the pandemic. On key issues such as testing, PPE and protecting the vulnerable, they’ve fallen woefully short. The Public Accounts Committee described the decision to discharge 25,000 NHS patients into care homes without testing as an appalling error. This release of untested patients has been linked to the 20,000 deaths seen in care homes.
Frontline staff working during the pandemic – nurses, bus drivers, carers, DWP staff – while making huge sacrifices on our behalf, have also felt the effect of this government’s carelessness. Tragically, many of those workers lost their lives, including PCS members which my union represents. Disgracefully, when Border Force staff at Heathrow Airport were finally given PPE after PCS fought on their behalf, they were told by their managers not to wear it because “it was giving the wrong impression to visitors.”
The PPE issue highlights another problem at the heart of government’s Covid response: privatisation. Public ownership campaign group We Own It has detailed how the procurement system for PPE was ripe for profiteering, with an elaborate system of layers of commercial contractors and nearly a dozen supply chains. The system may have worked exactly as planned for those who wanted to make money from the crisis, but the staff who desperately needed PPE were shamefully let down. Millions of pieces of PPE, including goggles, surgical gowns and masks, failed safety standards and couldn’t be used.
The disastrous track and trace system is the ultimate political and privatisation failure. The government has spent an eye-watering £12 billion on a system that simply isn’t fit for purpose. A recent error meant that nearly 16,000 cases weren’t uploaded to the database and 50,000 contact traces weren’t followed up. Among the multi-billion pound contracts was one for £113 million, awarded to a company who hires former prominent government minister Owen Patterson as a consultant.
Every single person in this country should be outraged that this government is more concerned with lining the pockets of their Tory mates than they are keeping people safe. For these reasons and many others, I stand by the comments I made earlier in the pandemic that if it were not for the actions of this callous and cruel government, thousands of people who have died would still be alive today.
As we move onto the next phase on the pandemic, we must reflect on the longer-term impact of the virus but crucially too the economic devastation that is happening already and that will intensify. The recession suffered earlier in the year was the UK’s worst on record and with more restrictions expected over the coming months, experts have warned that the downturn could last until spring next year.
Even before the pandemic, 14 million people were living in poverty, including over 4.5 million children. Foodbank use also exploded in the years following the last recession – a 3,772% increase between 2009 and 2019 – but things are expected to get even worse as millions of people are thrown out of work. The Trussell Trust has said that over the winter period, they expect to hand out six food parcels every minute.
Often, people cite issues with their benefits as the reason for having to visit a foodbank and since the pandemic hit, more people than ever have relied on a dwindling social security system. Over £30 billion has been cut from its budget since 2010 and over that same period, the average benefit income of a family reduced by £2,900.
PCS has campaigned hard on the issue of welfare reform and even before the Covid crisis hit, the social security system was failing people, despite the efforts of DWP staff. This is especially true of the disastrous Universal Credit system, which saw the number of claimants rise by over 3 million during the pandemic. The safety net that the welfare state once provided has withered away. People across the union and labour movement must unite to demand better.
The future that lies ahead of us is bleak and that’s why now, more than ever, we need a bold and radical vision, articulated both at the despatch box in parliament and, just as importantly, in our workplaces and our communities. If we fail to take the bold action necessary, given everything we’ve been through and given everything we face, the consequences will define our lives for years to come.
Trade unions need to be at the forefront of this response by uniting working people and taking the fight to the government, demanding that jobs are saved and better paid, and more resources for our communities. That means encouraging more people to join a union and, vitally, to get more active in that union, especially those who are young and precariously employed. I’ve participated in Zoom meetings which have seen upwards of 20,000 participants – we can embrace the technological changes to improve the way we communicate and organise.
Joint trade union campaigning is the key, united with community organisations. Bread and butter issues such as sick pay cut across the whole trade union membership and require a joint response but six different campaigns are being run by six different unions and campaign groups. Other issues such as public ownership have been brought into sharp relief too. Bringing the track and trace system back in-house has huge public support and there needs to be a united campaign that can be the vehicle for change.
This bold action must also extend to the Labour Party. Labour members and working people want them to take the fight the government but over the past few months we’ve seen a Labour leadership that has given mixed messages about the economy and keeping people safe. In the face of the unprecedented crisis we face, Labour has to commit to the radical policy agenda that ran through both the 2017 and 2019 election manifesto and indeed Keir Starmer’s ten pledges.
At a time of great uncertainty for millions of working people, opposing bills that undermine fundamental human rights, rather than abstaining on them, is the bare minimum expected from the Labour Party. The communities the party serve need a movement that fills them with hope and optimism now more than ever.
Our task now is to build a movement that is underpinned by class politics and class solidarity and puts forward bold alternatives for our communities on issues large and small. I fear that if we fail, the misery and destitution we’ve seen is only the beginning. That’s why we have to fight for our services, our people and our communities like never before.