It didn’t have to be this way

This second lockdown was avoidable. It is critical that we understand the choices made by those in power that led to this, and organise to take management of this crisis out of their hands.

Photo: Ryan Powell

Here we are again – national lockdown, despite the weeks of braying from the Tory frontbench that such a situation was not going to happen. The NHS is rapidly reaching bed capacity, with health workers struggling to hold back a violent second wave of the disease. People across the UK face an uncertain winter, locked inside and sceptical that Spring will bring any fresh joys. As the days get darker, it becomes clear there has been an abject failure to control the spread of the disease.

This is not some universal collective failure, but the result of murderous incompetence from the Tory government. The government’s own Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) recommended a circuit-breaker lockdown on the 21 of September, over a month ago, yet they were ignored. Instead, the government has spent the last few months seemingly encouraging the spread of the disease. In August, the government’s ‘eat out to help out’ pushed people to meet inside for food and drinks – according to one paper, causing 8-17% of new clusters. The government, not content with this train wreck, decided to push the premature opening of schools and universities, demanding an unsafe and impossible return to face-to-face teaching.

‘Local lockdowns’ and their tier system became incompetent sticking plasters as the virus rapidly re-emerged. The refusal of government to close restaurants, shops, and schools in most locations of the country, unable to grasp the obvious, made national lockdown inevitable. The ruling class, seemingly incapable of comprehending a world where their meals are not served to them, their luxury shops are not open, and their childcare cannot be out-sourced to someone else, doomed the rest of the country to coronavirus.

Most frustratingly of all, the government, despite the calls of the National Education Union and the University and College Union to move to digital teaching, continues to insist that education centres remain open. With children and students acting as perfect vectors for the spread of coronavirus, this lockdown looks like it will be even more ineffectual than the last. Compound this with the insistence on keeping construction and other unnecessary face-to face-workplaces open, and the government is allowing the virus to run rampant throughout society. This is a herd immunity strategy in disguise, with the disease allowed to pick people off at levels just about low enough to avoid an outwardly visible collapse in the NHS.

If you ask anyone who works in hospitality, teaching, or construction they could explain easily how the last few months were leading to disaster. Working-class people across the country know how badly prepared their workplaces were for the disease, but have no control over their own places of work.

Last-minute furlough and the jobs bonfire

One of the most significant effects of the second lockdown will be a further rise in unemployment. Again, this can largely be traced to callous and incompetent government decision-making. The furlough scheme, which paid a measly 80% of wages – funnelled via employers rather than paid to workers directly – was due to end on 31 October. At the eleventh hour, the government announced the scheme would be extended until the start of December, and today have announced a further extension to March next year. But much of the damage is already done: with bosses working under the assumption that the scheme was ending, thousands across the country had already been made redundant. The scheme had already been inept at protecting jobs, but this last-minute mess has ensured immiseration for many more people. Meanwhile, living on a reduced wage in perpetuity will grind down living standards, and many bosses will continue abusing the scheme to pressure employees into carrying on work under the radar.

The reinstatement of 80% furlough also carries an additional insult for those northern communities being ground down by Tory rule. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, and other northern politicians, were calling for 80% when their areas were forced into tier 3 restrictions. Instead, they were only offered 67% of wages for their regions. Plainly, the government’s vaunted promise of  ‘levelling up the north’ only means levelling up the bluster and levels of drudgery.

Of course, the government’s stinginess is matched by the poverty of ambition among the supposed political representatives of the working class. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades union Congress, has focussed on calling for a continued 80%, ‘more help for the self-employed’, and that the government ‘fix sick pay’. Keir Starmer demanded a similar extension of the scheme and made an ‘open offer’ to work with the PM on the furlough scheme in September.

Rather than fighting for full pay, for no layoffs, or for any whiff of job creation or redeployment to tackle the multiple pressing crises we face as a society, the official leadership of the left and the labour movement has failed, and seems set to continue failing in this second lockdown. Rank-and-file workplace organising, starting by using simple tools like health and safety regulation, and going as far, where possible, as wildcat strikes and industrial actions will be the only way in the coming months to protect workers’ livelihoods.

Renters abandoned

The coming months will see an intensification of struggle around rent. While extending the payment holiday on mortgages, the government allowed the temporary ban on evictions to end on 20 September. Across the UK, renters’ organisations like Living Rent, London Renters Union, and Acorn have been the only organisations to stand up for the interests of those subject to insecure housing. This has become even more of an issue with universities encouraging students to pay to be locked into for-profit student accommodation, resulting in a wave of rent strikes.

Again, the parliamentary opposition has made little noise about the need to support renters. Despite formally supporting an extension to the ban, Labour refuses to seriously engage with the question of arrears, rejecting any talk of cancelling rent payments owed. This alone is enough to expose the many households already in arrears to being turfed out by predatory landlords.

A ruling-class response

If the first lockdown showed a class line in the government’s response, the second lockdown confirms it in the extreme. Workplaces have become unsafe, renters are going into arrears, and unemployment is rising. At the same time, capitalists are dishing out billions in lucrative contracts to their university mates.

As other countries across the world reach a stage of relative normalcy, the UK has been thrown by the ruling class into the maws of this disease again. The rise in Covid-free countries shows that Zero Covid is possible here in the UK. This requires not only proper support for national health provision, but also public ownership of previously outsourced regimes like test and trace, and the reversal of the profit agenda across health and care. It also requires proper management of face-to-face interaction in all workplaces, building on knowledge that workers have about their own industries. It requires a willingness to profoundly reorganise economic life and activity.

No one within Parliament has such ambition. To Hell with the lot of them – the landlords, bankers, and lawyers who litter both sides of the House of Commons, whether wearing a red or blue rosette. They’ve shown they can’t and won’t resolve the crisis  – one way or another, this has to be taken out of their hands.

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