Coronavirus crisis: Emergency measures needed, but workers must not pay the price

The spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has become a major health crisis, unlike anything seen in a century. At the time of writing, around 156 countries have been impacted, with more than 170,000 infected and more than 6,500 confirmed deaths, including 36 in Britain and 2 in Ireland, with those figures likely to rise dramatically.

No loss of jobs or income! Put public health before private profit!

The spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has become a major health crisis, unlike anything seen in a century. At the time of writing, around 156 countries have been impacted, with more than 170,000 infected and more than 6,500 confirmed deaths, including 36 in Britain and 2 in Ireland, with those figures likely to rise dramatically.

Capitalist governments have generally been slow to act, weighing up the impact of preventative measures against that of widespread infection on the profits of big business. This balancing act has facilitated the spread of the virus. However, witnessing the surge of infection in Italy – where the government initially hesitated and was then forced to introduce a near total lockdown – other governments are now beginning to implement more developed measures aimed at limiting contagion. The Southern government has closed schools, colleges, childcare facilities and cultural institutions until 29th March, while pubs and restaurants have also been instructed to close for the next two weeks.

Johnson government gambles with people’s lives

The British government’s limited response – reliant largely on self-isolation – is now an outlier, and seems to be based upon merely managing the spread of the virus to achieve ‘herd immunity’, where natural immunity develops among the bulk of the population from exposure. A leaked report from Public Health England suggests that the epidemic could stretch into spring 2021, with 80% of the population being infected and 8 million requiring hospitalisation at some point. Based on even low mortality rates, this could translate into hundreds of thousands of deaths. This underlines the callous disregard of the Tories for the lives of ordinary people. Growing evidence of re-infection in areas severely impacted by the virus calls the whole concept of herd immunity into question.

Stormont Executive divided – Take action now!

The Northern Ireland Executive is clearly taking its lead from Westminster, hesitating to take the kind of preventative measures seen elsewhere. Last Thursday, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill issued a joint statement saying now was not the time for schools in the North to close. However, O’Neill broke ranks less than 24 hours later, reflecting the contradiction in approach, North and South, and also growing pressure from below. Many schools are closing voluntarily, with Queen’s University moving to online lectures. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has called for an immediate shutdown in education. Similarly, some pubs are closing for Saint Patrick’s Day, but no broad policy has been put in place.

Internationally, the evidence shows that early social distancing measures are key to limiting the impact of the virus on human health. In the context of Ireland, there is an obvious contradiction in having widely different measures in place on either side of the border. However, in the South, mandatory closures have resulted in mass lay-offs, with private sector workers being asked to accept a significant reduction in income, while other workers are now faced with finding alternative childcare arrangements.

Poverty not acceptable price to pay

Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that statutory sick pay will be made available immediately to staff who have to self-isolate, rather than after a four-day delay. However, workers earning less than £118/week on average are not eligible, and statutory sick pay amounts to only £94.25/week. This – and the demands of bosses – can pressurise workers who are ill to come into work when they should be self-isolating, risking the spread of the virus.

Bosses may seek to implement mass lay-offs in order to defend their profits. The collapse of Flybe has already led to the loss of 100 jobs at Belfast City Airport, with more jobs and the future of the airport itself at risk. Workers in precarious sectors like hospitality and retail are particularly under threat. Colin Neil of Hospitality Ulster said pub and restaurant owners were open to a prolonged shutdown if advised to do so, saying their concern was “not about profit”, but then asked: “If we close, how do people put bread on their table?” This is illustrative of the approach bosses will seek to take.

Workers must not foot the bill

For socialists, the bottom line is that no worker should be economically worse off because of this crisis. The working class has suffered enough over the last decade of austerity, while the super-rich have hoarded more and more of the wealth we create. The six wealthiest people in the UK have as much wealth as the poorest 13.2 million. The billionaires and big business must be made to foot the bill for the necessary measures to deal with this epidemic, not ordinary people. 

The trade union movement – representing almost 250,000 workers here – must lead the way in defending the interests of the working class in the context of this crisis. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions should immediately establish bodies to monitor government and employer handling of the crisis and demand appropriate action to safeguard the health and economic interests of working-class people.

The Socialist Party calls for:

  • Take action now: Emergency investment needed in our NHS to ensure staffing and resources are maximised. Close schools, colleges, pubs, restaurants and other non-essential workplaces. Appropriate, free childcare facilities must be provided for essential staff. 
  • No loss of pay: Guarantee full pay for all workers forced to take time off work to self-isolate, care for children or due to shutdown. For those on zero-hour contracts, this should be based on average earnings. Where small employers demonstrably cannot afford this, pay should be subsidised by the state through emergency taxation on the super-rich and big business.
  • No job losses: Demand an immediate moratorium on redundancies and sackings for all but gross misconduct. Firms which threaten bankruptcy or permanent closure should be brought into public ownership.
  • Public health before private profit: Where feasible, all workers must have the right to work from home. No coercion of those with underlying conditions or caring responsibilities to attend. Appropriate sanitation, social distancing and personal protection equipment must be made available in all workplaces, with trade union supervision.
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