Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1076/30353
Covid-19: a socialist response to the coronavirus crisis
Coronavirus: underfunded, understaffed - NHS is not prepared
Jon Dale, secretary, Unite union Nottinghamshire NHS branch (personal capacity)
As new coronavirus infections gather pace - in Britain and around the world - Boris Johnson claims the country is "well-prepared with a fantastic NHS." Who's he kidding?
NHS performance this winter was the worst on record - before a single patient developed coronavirus Covid-19. Decades of under-investment in all public services were followed by the past ten years of austerity cuts.
A senior doctor told a Nuffield Trust reporter: "If this is like the 2009 [swine] flu it's going to be very bad. We're in a worse position than we were then. If it's worse than that we're going to be in deep trouble."
A London hospital critical care consultant said the government "is dishonest. I hear them say the NHS is well-prepared. We are not well-prepared, it is media spin."
Of the first 44,000 Covid-19 patients in China, over 80% had a mild disease, 14% suffered severe infection such as pneumonia, and 5% needed critical care.
The British Thoracic Society of chest specialists warned respiratory wards are "understaffed and overstretched." 57% of senior respiratory medics surveyed said they had no extra staff to rely on.
There are only 15 'ECMO' beds in England to treat adults with the most severe respiratory failure. 80% of the 3,700 critical care beds in England were occupied two weeks ago, and average occupancy of all hospital beds was 94%. Several hospitals reported 100% of beds already occupied.
The average hospital stay of Chinese Covid-19 patients has been eleven to 26 days. Already short of 100,000 staff, high workload means most NHS workers are on the edge. How will the NHS cope if thousands of staff catch the virus themselves and cannot work?
Waiting lists for planned surgery will grow even longer as operations get cancelled. Urgent non-surgical treatments could be delayed weeks or months if beds are filled and staff knocked out by Covid-19. Senior doctors will be forced to decide who gets treated and who doesn't, potentially to die as a result.
Outside hospital, privatised social care companies employ low-paid workers, often on zero-hour contracts. Bullying management and harsh sickness absence policies force many to work when unwell. What a terrible way to run this vital service to the elderly and disabled - the most vulnerable to this disease!
Trade unions must demand sick pay is paid from day one at full pay rates. There must be no pressure on sick workers in any sector to continue working, threatening their own and others' health.
Total world military expenditure was $1.8 trillion in 2018 - about $220 for every human being on the planet. Instead of defending the ruling classes' wealth and power, such vast sums should be used to defend us all from disease, poverty and environmental destruction.
Nationalisation of big corporations, including the pharmaceutical industry; democratic planning by the working class, and international cooperation - in a word, socialism - could prevent new diseases like Covid-19 becoming disasters.
A workers' charter for tackling the coronavirus crisis
Employers are signalling that self-isolation and sickness could mean loss of pay. The Tories are responsible for vulnerabilities caused by decades of austerity. Governments in parts of Europe are beginning to stop gatherings with the stated aim of controlling the spread of the virus, but have started to use this against strikes and protests.
The National Shop Stewards Network has produced a model motion of demands for trade unionists to put forward to defend working-class interests - available at shopstewards.net. The Socialist incorporates those points below as part of a workers' charter for tackling the coronavirus crisis. More demands may become necessary as the situation develops - pick up future issues to read the latest.
- Emergency funding to provide resources to protect workers, patients, students and service users in the NHS, education, transport and public services
- The government must ensure that schools and health services are adequately funded to meet needs. This should include additional budgets in schools to provide supply staff to cover absence arising from the coronavirus, and to make sure that both staff and parents are fully compensated for any loss of earnings arising from the crisis
- Education workload demands on staff must be reduced, and time made available to prioritise protecting the health and safety of staff and students
- No to any removal of statutory class size limits as a response to managing teacher absences arising from novel coronavirus. Schools should not be treated as if they were just child-minding services. Increasing class sizes would damage education and heighten the risk of infection being spread further, as well as further increasing staff workload. Public health advice to education workers to hand-wash regularly throughout the day will only be possible if time is provided within the school day for this to take place
- Vaccines to be available for free - nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies to guarantee research, production and supply
- Reverse privatisation in the NHS, remove the privateers, and fund a massive increase in health spending
Pay and benefits
- No worker to pay the price for controlling the spread of the virus. Any worker who is required not to attend work, or is unable to do so because of childcare or transport closures, should receive full pay and not be forced to take annual leave. This should include workers in receipt of in-work benefits such as Universal Credit, who should be paid their full benefits and receive no sanction. Workers who follow health advice to be absent from work to avoid potential spread should be excluded from any attendance-management procedures
- All workers should be entitled to full pay from day one of isolation or sickness for as long as it is needed
- Self-employed, agency, zero-hour-contract and gig economy workers required to self-isolate to be granted emergency benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions, at full pay, for the equivalent of at least a full working week of 37.5 hours, or more if they usually work longer
- Benefit claimants should be believed, excused signing on and attending mandatory interviews, and have their benefit payment advanced. Claimants should not be penalised for not being able to leave their homes and not being able to undertake labour-market activities because of lack of access to transport, internet, postal services, and so on
- No redundancies, lay-offs or loss of pay in manufacturing, logistics or service industries because of supply issues
Stop abuses by the bosses
- Any companies who claim they cannot comply with the necessary protections for workers must open their books to inspection by the workforce and trade unions. Small firms which genuinely cannot afford these measures to be underwritten by the government. Big firms which refuse to comply to be nationalised - with compensation only for proven need, not for super-rich bosses - to defend workers' jobs and incomes
- Democratic trade union oversight over any government or private sector emergency measures taken to contain the virus, such as restrictions on public assemblies or strikes, or supermarket supply rationing
- For the Trade Union Congress and the unions, the biggest voluntary national organisation with over six million members across the country, to prepare to lead national coordinated strike action to protect people should necessary measures not be taken
Covid-19 hospital worker: protective clothing doesn't make up for lack of beds
An NHS health professional
My hospital is one of those taking suspected Covid-19 cases. As health workers, we are well aware of the deaths from influenzas which happen every winter, and most of us get our flu jab. But there is no vaccination for this new infection.
Everything possible is being done to protect staff, but all the protective clothing in the world can't make up for the simple fact that we don't have enough beds now.
Recently we went beyond 'black alert' - indicating a serious incident where the hospital can no longer provide comprehensive care. Waiting rooms and day units were turned into wards, using trolleys instead of beds, so the NHS trust could continue to take in seriously ill patients.
We are the major trauma centre for the region, and yet we don't have the beds to properly admit patients. The adult A&E majors department has 20 bays and six 'resus' (resuscitation) bays.
This should be sufficient on most days. But now we have patients with us for way over the four-hour target - sometimes well into the following day. These patients should have been transferred to specialist wards, but they don't have the beds.
Nowhere to go
Further patients admitted then have nowhere to go and are on trolleys down the corridor, in front of the 'sluice' and resus trolleys - things are very overcrowded. And on top of this, half those patients have coughs, shortness of breath and temperatures - all apparently potential symptoms of coronavirus!
Is it any wonder that staff are stressed? My main workload as a union rep is sickness reviews. Alongside high sickness levels, we are haemorrhaging staff. Health professionals can often find work in the private sector - without the stress, the shifts, the nights and the massive workload.
CT scan services are now on the risk register because we have had to cancel waiting lists. This means increasing delays in diagnosing many time-critical conditions, cancer included.
The official advice to the general public makes sense - stay home so you don't infect other people. And that's fine if your employer will continue to pay you, if you have the resources to get your food delivered and a subscription to Netflix.
But for many workers this would be a nightmare. No sick pay, nothing to put in the meter to stay warm - it doesn't bear thinking about.
In all probability, we won't have a serious outbreak in this country. But it's our class who would suffer the most. We often have no choice about using overcrowded public transport. And the poorer you are, the more likely you are to suffer underlying conditions that put you at serious risk - conditions that affect the lungs like COPD, for example.
Many of the people I work with feel they are on their knees and can't take much more. What they desperately need is a lead from the union tops, to say enough is enough, we are willing to fight and to put forward a strategy to win.
Northants Council: no hygiene for public contact
The 'flagship' Tory local authority I work for recently sent an email to all departments, stating it is going to install hand sanitisers in all of its buildings.
All buildings except libraries. We're the one service that works directly with the public!
Northamptonshire County Council said the budget won't allow for libraries to also have hand-sanitiser dispensers. We're currently buying our own hand sanitiser.
Jac Green, Northampton Socialist Party
Attacks on pay could help virus spread
Wetherspoon has said workers self-isolating after travel to coronavirus areas will only get statutory sick pay - nothing for first three days! Not only will workers be out of pocket, but it could help coronavirus spread. Workers will come to work because they can't afford not to.
What's the Tories' response to coronavirus? Attack workers' rights. They plan to change the law to increase class sizes as the virus spreads. Education workers are already striking because their workload is too high. The Tories claim to have similar plans for the NHS.
Ian Pattison, East London Socialist Party
A healthy society should have more than one voice
The bureaucracy running China will face a reckoning because of coronavirus.
One of the last comments of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was punished by the regime for trying to warn people about the disease, is being taken up by the masses: "A healthy society should have more than one voice."
Only a democratic socialist society could guarantee ordinary people a real voice and a say in how society is run.
Ross Saunders, Cardiff West Socialist Party
Who will emergency measures protect?
The risk level for getting coronavirus in Europe is now "moderate to high" and deaths in Italy have risen from 18 to 52. Covid-19 now counts 90,000 cases in over 60 countries, with 51 cases confirmed in the UK as we went to press.
The government says it is "well-placed" to handle the crisis. But the Doctors' Association UK reports just eight of 1,618 medics surveyed felt the NHS was ready. The Scottish government says that in the unlikely worst-case scenario, up to 250,000 people could be hospitalised.
Westminster's plan should the outbreak get out of hand is to try to delay its peak until summer. This makes sense - but is also a tacit admission that the NHS winter crisis is a real and permanent feature.
The NHS 111 helpline has been promised an extra £1.7 million to give advice on Covid-19. Why is there not immediate extra money in all parts of the NHS? And if there's money available, why are we only getting it now?
Up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of a coronavirus epidemic in the UK, the government warns. Bakery chain Greggs has announced it will pay self-isolating workers their normal contracted hours.
This is a victory for bakers' union BFAWU, which won recognition at the firm with an agreement including a ban on zero-hour contracts. Trade unions in all sectors should demand the same.
Boris Johnson has said: "Something like a mass epidemic is going to have all sorts of consequences and there is always the potential for an economic downside... and we are ready for that.
"But don't forget the fundamentals of the UK economy are very strong." Not so. The Socialist has been warning for some time that British capitalism is extremely weak. It will be hit hard by an economic downturn - and one was already in preparation before Covid-19.
The FTSE 100 slumped by a huge 12% in the last week of February, with similar falls around the world. The OECD reckons world economic growth will likely slip from a forecast 2.9% to just 2.4%.
However, it's possible that a "domino effect" could cause growth to halve to 1.5% and financial markets to crash by around 20%. The EU's economy spokesman has warned that "the idea of a V-shaped recovery, returning quickly to growth, can't be taken for granted and could prove optimistic."
Already, British Airways and Ryanair have suffered falling demand and cancelled hundreds of flights. Will all customers and staff be compensated? Will the government step in to invest in jobs and services, and nationalise to save jobs if firms go under?
The government advises "reducing the impact and spread of misinformation by relying on information from trusted sources" - such as the government. But who trusts this cavalier, anti-worker administration?
In France, hated president Emmanuel Macron has issued a unilateral decree to dismiss democratic blocks to his attacks on the pension system that have provoked major national strikes. The government has also banned demonstrations against this outrage under the pretext of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In the unlikely event that the outbreak reaches severe levels in Britain, the state plans to curtail public assembly, create no-go areas, put whole cities on lockdown, let police stop responding to 'low-level' crimes, and put troops on the streets.
Few would oppose temporary restrictions to contain an epidemic. But in whose interests and under whose control? Democratic working-class control involving the trade unions and local communities is necessary to ensure emergency measures defend workers and the public, not just the profits of big business owners.
Financial analyst Bruno Monteyne, former supply chain director at Tesco, has said supermarkets and suppliers maintain 'feed the nation' contingency plans to prevent shortages and food riots.
Monteyne says these could include narrowing supply to staples only. He also claims this would not include profiteering price hikes - although the sector could face £1.2 billion losses.
But if an extreme scenario did indeed arise, who would control this rationing? Only democratic control by supermarket workers, unions and the local community could guarantee fair and thorough planning.
Schools and Covid-19: class size proposal is about cuts, not health
Nicky Downes, National Education Union national executive committee (personal capacity)
One of the measures the government is considering in the coronavirus outbreak is to remove any limits to class sizes. What does this actually mean?
Well, if there are teachers absent, in self-isolation or because they are ill, the government is recommending that the classes are all combined and taught by one teacher. Surely this is going to make the spread of the virus much easier. I can tell you now this won't be happening.
The government's proposal is not about caring for children. It's about money. Education workers need to stand together and not put this into practice.
If the government is serious about our students' health and wellbeing then it will increase school budgets and get rid of the testing regime that already makes them ill! As a parent and grandparent, I'd be seriously concerned that the government is putting money before my child's safety.
Education workers ask union to campaign on coronavirus
On 2 March, the Bristol branch of the National Education Union (NEU) agreed the amendment below for the motion on workload at NEU conference.
Insert two new paragraphs:
Conference strongly opposes any removal of statutory class size limits as a response to managing teacher absences arising from novel coronavirus, treating schools as if they were just child-minding services
Increasing class sizes would damage education and heighten the risk of infection being spread further, as well as further increasing staff workload. Conference also recognises that public health advice to education workers to hand-wash regularly throughout the day will only be possible if time is provided within the school day for this to take place
Add new instructions to the executive:
Call on the government to (1) ensure that schools and health services are adequately funded to meet needs, including providing additional budgets to provide supply staff to cover additional absence arising from the coronavirus, and (2) make sure that both staff and parents are fully compensated for any loss of earnings arising from the crisis
Issue advice to members, workplace representatives and local officers to ensure that workload demands on staff are reduced to make sure that time is available to prioritise protecting the health and safety of staff and students
Trade unionists demand precautions in schools and colleges
Trade unionists have made the following demands of management in one college:
We watch the news with concern as coronavirus begins to sweep Europe and the rest of the world amid warning of a pandemic. Considering these points, we urgently demand that our concerns are addressed within the next 24 hours:
- What is the emergency protocol for staff and students if there are any identified cases of coronavirus?
- Why are events and travel still being organised to the regions most affected while other organisations are withdrawing staff and students from high-risk areas?
- There must be an immediate review of EU and international travel, including work and study-related field trips, for all staff and students. The decision should err on the side of caution
- Staff must not be expected or pressurised to travel if there is any risk of infection. We cannot rely on Foreign Office advice as it provides a bare minimum and does not reflect the varied work staff do across the world
- Are all buildings now being deep-cleaned on a regular basis as a precautionary measure, including all door handles being antiseptically wiped? If not, why - and when will this begin?
- Members inform us that there are toilets where there are missing soap dispensers and there have been some dispensers without soap, which even under normal circumstances is unhygienic
- Hand sanitisers should be made available for all staff and students and should be outside areas where students and staff congregate
- Staff need reassurance that they will be able to work from home if there is a need for self-isolation and not be penalised in any way
- What is the organisation doing to safeguard and avoid any coronavirus-related harassment and racist attacks against staff and students?
We want to work with the organisation on this matter, but we feel at the moment that the guidance and support offered by senior leadership are inadequate for a fluid and seriously developing scenario. It is in the interest of all staff and students that these points above are addressed immediately.
In The Socialist 4 March 2020:
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