The Scottish government needs to defy Johnson’s Tories and act independently to save lives

Ray M argues that the Scottish government must break with Westminster in order to tackle the Covid-19 crisis appropriately.

An empty hospital corridor.
Photo by @neonbrand

The Covid-19 pandemic changes everything. We are about to enter a crisis of unimaginable proportions. With each daily announcement, Johnson and the Tories are burning up decades of free-market shibboleths as they attempt to get to the head of the pandemic. It brings to mind the old dictum from Lampedusa’s The Leopard that ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’. Yet with each set of pronouncements, ordinary people get half baked and contradictory guidelines. Is it any wonder people are confused?

As the virus begins to spread through British society, we are ill-equipped to protect our citizens. Decades of market forces in the public sector and over a decade of Tory austerity have decimated the fabric of our society. Health care and public services have been in bad shape for many years as we have been subjected to the most extreme of neoliberal experiments. With each day that passes concerned specialists are speaking out about the parlous shape of our health and social care infrastructure making us more aware of how vulnerable the Tories have left us.

The editor of the Lancet recently tweeted:

‘[I]t took a study from Imperial to understand the likely burden of COVID-19 on the NHS. But read the first paper we published on COVID-19 on Jan 24. 32% admitted to ITU with 15% mortality. We have wasted 7 weeks. This crisis was entirely preventable.’

 

A few days ago, the Sunday Times claimed:

‘At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.

The New Statesman reported last week yet another jaw-dropping example of the criminal negligence shown by the Tories. In October 2016 the UK government ran a national pandemic flu exercise, codenamed Exercise Cygnus. At the time, the chief medical officer commented, ‘We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people,’ One important conclusion was that Britain faced the threat of ‘inadequate ventilation’ in a future pandemic. This was a reference to the lack of ventilation machines. The government’s plans for dealing with a Covid-19 like pandemic have been available online for years. Despite the severe failings exposed by Exercise Cygnus, the government’s planning for a future pandemic did not change.

On 14 March, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock begged British manufacturers – ‘If you produce a ventilator, we will buy it’. This announcement was the first time the government admitted what it had known for over three years – that Britain had an acute shortage of life-saving ventilators. Hancock’s announcement came six weeks after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Britain. 

The government anticipate that between 60 and 80% of the population will contract the disease. They recognise that about 4% of these cases will be hospitalised. According to the Imperial College report of 14 March, whose findings reflect the experience of Italy, where 1.3% of these cases will need ventilator equipment. It’s estimated that we will need at least 100,000 ventilators as the virus spreads. Britain currently has only 5,000 ventilators with 70-80% of these already in use before any Covid-19 patients demand intensive care. The gap between what’s available and what’s needed to treat people in the middle of the pandemic is massive. In those six weeks after the first cases appeared here, the Tories did nothing to address this massive shortfall. In the US, both Fords and GM have announced they are going to produce ventilator equipment. They estimate the first models will be available in June. In Britain, only Dyson have made any commitment and they can’t yet give a date when ventilators will be available. Hancock’s begging letter to major engineering firms has gone largely unanswered. If BAE Systems, Rolls Royce or JCB had agreed to produce ventilator equipment it would be all over the news. Clearly there’s not enough money in producing vital health care equipment and once again the Tories put the profits of business before saving lives.

The government knew as early as 24 January from the Imperial College that their strategy would lead to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. They knew from Exercise Cygnus over 3 years ago that the health service had no spare capacity for any spike in ventilator demand – never mind the kind of pandemic that’s heading our way. Hospitals are now making contingency plans to move staff from all areas of care to deal with the virus. This means that most other treatments and operations will now not take place with an as yet unknown number of people left to suffer.

The Tories’ criminal complacency means that we have lost seven weeks which could have been used to order and make ventilators, testing kits and protective gear for medical and care staff which are all in desperately short supply. This time should have been used to retrain staff and build more health care capacity. The government has allowed the Coronavirus to spread for seven weeks when they could have held it back. Even today, people are being forced to work in jobs that are clearly not essential, thus spreading the virus. The cost in lost lives is as yet unknown. However, in Italy where deaths are now spiralling, they introduced testing and social isolation far earlier than Britain. The later you begin social isolation, the worse the number of infections and the higher the mortality rate. It is likely that deaths in the UK will eventually outstrip Italy unless drastic action is taken.

The rest of the world has watched aghast as the Tories have ignored the expert opinion of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the experiences of China, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries that have been successful in reducing the rate of infection. Panicked by the likely political impact of how this will play out the Tories are now belatedly and half-heartedly implementing measures that will help slow the spread of the virus. Yet, even at this late stage, they refuse to implement the kind of measures that other countries have taken. Their approach will result in many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

As Johnson finally closed schools and leisure facilities, he’s been trailing behind the facts on the ground: parents were refusing to send their kids to school and teachers were arguing for schools to shut. Launching an economic package of support for affected workers only came about with pressure from the labour movement. The FA and SFA showed themselves to have a stronger moral compass than the government by closing down the football leagues. In the last few days, senior Tories are becoming aware of the scale of the mess. Now they are talking about a coalition government to try and share the blame. If opposition parties are serious about turning this situation around they would have to insist on the nationalisation of all manufacturing facilities capable of making ventilators and other vital equipment needed for intensive care. They would need to demand that all really non-essential work is stopped with immediate effect with workers losing no pay alongside action to protect health workers in hospitals and help ordinary people survive this pandemic. They don’t need to enter a coalition with the Tories to make these arguments. However, making these points would change the terms of debate about how we address the pandemic.

It’s clear from the little we now know that we need a radical change in direction before we enter the maelstrom of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Scotland, if ever there was a time for independent action to stop this criminal complacency affecting Scottish society it is now.  However, the Scottish government has shown little appetite for independent action. The elderly, the vulnerable and working people in Scotland remain in the front line as the virus takes hold here too. With government and health devolved in Scotland, there is no need to follow the frighteningly shambolic Tory government as it’s buffeted from one announcement to the next.

There are finally signs of some positive steps in the Scottish Government’s approach. The setting up of an independent expert group separate from the UK Government could lead to effective policies being taken in Scotland. The recent joint statement between the Scottish Government and STUC on fair work is also a step forward. It says clearly that employers, unions and the government should ‘agree appropriate arrangements’ and that no one should feel under any pressure to break the health advice or be financially penalised for it. These are important shifts in policy in Scotland and show how it’s possible to take an independent approach. But more must be done, and quickly.

It’s time for the Scottish government to recognise the wider social and economic crisis unfolding in our society and take the necessary and appropriate measures to protect the incomes, tenancies and care services of ordinary people. If the state of California can defy Trump and begin to take measures to protect its citizens then the Scottish government can defy Boris Johnson and put our citizens before the interests of the parasitical elites.

While we insist on an effective approach to dealing with the pandemic, we cannot wait for the British and devolved Scottish government to step up. Both governments have been responsible for the market-based priorities that have led them to implementing the policies that have left health and social care in this threadbare state. Working people are coming together in self-help groups, in streets and on estates, to make sure the vulnerable and the elderly are not abandoned. Throughout Britain, thousands of these groups spontaneously sprang to life and represent social solidarity in action providing some hope.

More people are questioning the way our society is organised as ordinary people are left vulnerable to infection and illness. Following examples of community resistance in Italy, people are coming out on their balconies to shout and sing, banging pots and pans. In Leith, in Edinburgh people sing ‘Sunshine on Leith’ dedicated to the frontline of defence in this crisis – the nurses, the doctors and all those who are fighting to treat us and help us survive the pandemic. However, once this pandemic has subsided and we begin to pick up the pieces, rebuild our lives and mourn our loved ones who didn’t make it through this horrific ordeal, many more will be looking for answers that go way beyond the failings of health and social care in Britain. People will be demanding change that ensures this kind of catastrophe never takes place again. To provide the changes we need will mean going way beyond the questions and solutions being provided by Johnson and his hapless Tories. A group of trade unionists, health workers, independence supporters and community activists have come together to demand radical action to fight the pandemic. We have produced a statement which is calling on the Scottish government to publicly break with the disastrous Westminster strategy and put people before profit. The more pressure we can build the more lives we can hope to save.

We encourage people to sign and share this statement to pressure the Scottish government to put people before profit.

 

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