Organise to defend public health, jobs, pay and services!

By Daniel Waldron

Following a dramatic surge in Covid infections and hospitalisations, the Northern Ireland Executive has introduced a raft of new restrictions. The most significant of these are the extension of the half-term break in schools to two weeks and the closure of cafes, bars and restaurants – except for takeaway and delivery – for a month. This raises the threat of further large-scale redundancies in the sector, unless there is an immediate emergency intervention. 

Socialists support all necessary measures to stem the spread of the virus and protect the capacity of our health service. However, these must be consistent with the science and driven by the interests of public health and the wellbeing of the population, not shaped by the interests of big business, as has been the case under the Northern Ireland Executive. The economic and social cost of this crisis should fall on the shoulders of the bosses and billionaires who have made a killing by profiteering off it, not on the shoulders of the working class.

Restrictions on people’s ability to meet with their friends and family are being maintained and tightened. Yet, many will still be compelled to work in close contact with others in non-essential sectors, including non-essential retail, which is to remain open and poses a particular risk. People are being told to work from home where possible, although there is no clarity as to how employers will be compelled to comply.

‘Personal responsibility’ a cover for Stormont’s failure

Arlene Foster and the Executive have stepped up their rhetoric about ‘personal responsibility’, trying to shift blame for the resurgence of the virus onto us – particularly young people – and away from their own failings. Overwhelmingly, ordinary people are acting responsibly. Following the Tories, the Executive rushed to re-open education and the economy without adequate safeguards in place, and has failed to adequately expand staffing and capacity in our health service, or to roll out mass testing and a robust track-and-trace system.

As socialists have argued from the outset of this crisis, we cannot rely on the pro-capitalist politicians in Stormont or Westminster to act in our interests. Instead, workers and young people need to get organised through the trade unions, student bodies and in our communities to defend public health, as well as jobs, pay and public services. The measures which we should demand include:

  • An immediate moratorium on redundancies and sackings for all but gross misconduct
  • Furlough payments to be topped up to 100% of wages by employers, or by the state where that is demonstrably unaffordable
  • Guaranteed right to work from home or to shield where necessary without penalisation
  • Democratic control of health and safety in workplaces, schools and colleges
  • Temporary closure of non-essential retail, with re-opening of sectors only when workers and unions agree it can be done safely
  • Repeal anti-union laws to allow workers to stand up for their rights
  • Emergency investment in NHS capacity, including mental health services
  • Mass testing to get ahead of the spread of the virus, and the strengthening of track-and-trace measures