by Jacqui Berry, ICU nurse (personal capacity) and Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales & Scotland)

At least 30,000 are dead in Britain as a result of Covid-19.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly how many would still be alive had the Tory government put people’s lives ahead of private profits.

Their total lack of preparation for Personal Protective Equipment provision, their steadfast reluctance to close schools, cancel events or implement any economically damaging measures have undoubtedly been paid for with human life.

Now, cheered on by captains of big business, they are loudly and proudly campaigning for an end to the shutdown – a reopening of non-essential workplaces, the relaxation of social distancing, etc. The Tory Government’s failure to convincingly meet their own five tests increases both the likelihood and severity of a second wave of the pandemic.

1) “NHS must have adequate capacity to care for critically unwell patients.”

When the pandemic first started to claim lives in Britain, NHS critical care units were able to rapidly expand capacity by cancelling non urgent and routine surgery. This allowed operating theatre spaces to be repurposed as make-shift Intensive Care Units. ICUs are usually staffed at a ratio of 1 nurse to 1 patient, however during the most recent Coronavirus peak that ratio was stretched as far as 1 nurse to 6 patients. ICUs across Britain are still full of critically unwell Covid-19 patients. When the Government says there are over 1000 critical care beds spare, they mean potential beds in pop-up ICUs, staffed by the existing exhausted workforce. An end to the lockdown now would risk a second surge in critical care demand, resulting in further delays for patients in real need of routine treatments.

2) “There need to be a sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths of Coronavirus.”

While thousands of hospital inpatients are already dead, the lacklustre approach to testing out of hospital patients for Coronavirus has led to countless deaths in care homes and in the community. Care home deaths continue to rise, with inadequate testing and PPE for staff being the driving force. The grisly toll of deaths continues to be underestimated by the government to disguise the shocking total which is now the worst in Europe.

3) “The rate of infection needs to reduce.”

Without mass testing it is impossible to say for certain what the current infection rate is, although reduced hospital admissions suggest

it has fallen. However, this is because the shutdown is working. Widespread returns to work and reopening of schools will allow the rate of infection to accelerate once more.

4) “Testing and PPE capacity is sufficient.”

Hundreds of health and care workers have died due to non existent or inadequate PPE. The Government’s figures on PPE distribution cannot be trusted. Thousands on the frontline still face a hand to mouth existence for access to gloves, gowns, masks and eye protection. The Government has failed to secure a consistent supply of PPE, competing on the global free market for stocks. If the shutdown is relaxed, millions of private sector employers will start competing for limited supplies, sold for profit. PPE will go to the highest bidder, not those who need it the most.

Testing capacity has been woefully short of what’s been required, with lack of infrastructure as a direct result of the decade of austerity imposed by the Tory party on public services. Their policies have set services up to fail. The responsibility for testing has been taken out of the hands of the NHS and sub contracted to private sector firms like Serco and Sodexo and even the failed accountancy firm, Deloittes.

5) “Any relaxation of the lockdown must not overwhelm the NHS.”

NHS services have functioned because of the collective determination of healthcare workers on the frontline, in spite of severe failings at government level. The NHS Nightingales diverted resources from existing hospitals and failed to contribute with the heavy lifting. Once again , the contracts to build them were handed over to the private sector! They were an exercise in Tory Propaganda, proving unable to admit substantial numbers of patients to relieve pressure on established ICUs because of a lack of suitable staff. Their “test, track and trace” strategy is several months overdue and hinges on the willingness of the general public to give their personal data over to a mobile phone app which has failed NHS cyber security tests.

At every step of the pandemic, the Government has repeatedly proven itself incapable of providing factually accurate information about its Coronavirus response. Acting on behalf of big business, which is desperate to resume profiteering, the Tories expect workers to l once again risk their lives. The Tory Government and the class of bosses whose interest they represent cannot be trusted to manage the shutdown’s end.

Early guidelines for employers offer toothless suggestions. They advise employers to implement social distancing, and provide hand washing facilities, but only “where possible”. The section on PPE is blank. The recommendations on the number of people permitted within a vehicle is vague. These guidelines were drawn up to allow bosses to coerce and cajole staff into working in unsafe conditions, in the name of business as usual.

All workers have the legal right to refuse to enter a dangerous workplace. Ultimately, safety standards cannot be decided or enforced without the control of the workers themselves and elected workplace representatives, without reprisals from senior management.

The National Education Union have devised their own “5 tests” for shutdown’s end, calling for a reduction in the number of new cases, testing and contact tracing, social distancing within schools, locally negotiated PPE, isolation protocols and protection for vulnerable people, including those who live with staff.

Although these tests are more robust than the government’s, the final say about whether a workplace is safe should only be made by the workers, collectively and democratically. Trade Unions already represent over 6 million workers in Britain. With the right leadership they could provide powerful organisation to workers across industries, not only to oversee safety standards in the workplace, but also to fight for justice for the hundreds who have had their lives stolen from them by a negligent government.

A safe reopening should be possible. The impact of the coronavirus has been felt most severely in working-class and impoverished communities, as have the negative effects of the Tories’ lockdown. In order to reopen without risking tens of thousands of lives, it requires a massive expansion of testing, expert contact tracing and PPE – all under the control of the NHS – on a scale far beyond the meagre targets the government has set (and in any case failed to meet).

Only with accurate information about the real prevalence of the virus and the current speed of its spread within society can it be possible to make informed and safe judgements about what is and isn’t safe.

And, just as in the workplaces, it should be working-class people, especially those on the frontlines, who democratically make decisions about what is necessary to protect our communities – not rich pro-capitalist politicians.

Such an approach would require a willingness to put people before profit. It would mean repurposing large parts of the economy to meet the challenges of responding to the corona crisis – something impossible for the capitalist market to do on the scale needed. It would mean democratic planning – both in workplaces and in communities – to ensure that reopening takes place in a way that puts people’s health and wellbeing first. In other words, it would require challenging the rule of the capitalist class – posing the need for socialist change, and a society run by and for working-class people.