Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash
The TUC has called for a public inquiry into PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] supplies, to start before the end of 2020.
The unions and the Labour Party must indict the Tories and demand different policies now, not just in 2021!
The Tory and Tory-led governments since 2010 have systematically pruned down NHS spending so that in 2018/19, overnight general and acute bed occupancy averaged 90.2 per cent, and regularly exceeded 95 per cent in winter.
For years now, campaigners have warned that just an unusually harsh winter, would overwhelm NHS capacity.
Yet the Tories have continued to run the NHS on “market”, “just-in-time” criteria of efficiency.
After “Hong Kong flu” (1968-9), AIDS (from 1981), SARS (2002-4), swine flu (2009-10), MERS (2012), and the 2013-6 eruption of Ebola, it was only a matter of time until another pandemic. But pandemic risks generate no “market signals” in advance. And so they are systematically under-provided for by capitalist regimes, except those put under exceptional duress, like Taiwan and South Korea after SARS and MERS.
The New Labour governments did create an NHS emergency stockpile, and expanded it in 2008-11. But the whole NHS supply chain was contracted out to DHL in 2006, and then re-contracted-out. The stockpile was re-contracted- out too, and run down from £831 million worth in 2011 to £506 million in March 2019, just £300-odd for each NHS worker.
The Health and Social Care Act 2012, extending market principles and privatisation in the NHS, hived off Public Health England from the NHS. Six years ago Martin McKee, from Britain’s leading school of epidemic-study, the LSHTM, wrote: “The government’s NHS reforms have seriously weakened public health. They have led to an exodus of qualified staff and fragmentation of responsibility”.
Both Tory and New Labour governments have systematically privatised, fragmented, and pauperised the social-care sector.
When the Tories declared an emergency with the elderly most at risk, they still did nothing to provide PPE and PPE training, testing, and extra medical help in care homes, or isolation pay for care workers.
The centralised structure of the NHS gave Britain an advantage in dealing with the pandemic. By running the NHS via contracting-out and just-scraping-by “efficiency”, the Tories turned that into a disadvantage.
The government has consistently failed to meet its promises on tests and PPE. It has adapted policy to supply rather than raise supply to meet need. On testing Britain is behind every other big European country other than France and Poland.
Even with this government, actual requisitioning - or approximations to it: commandeering the resources of private hospitals, and building new emergency hospitals - has worked. Intensive-care and ventilator capacities have been enough for the peak, of this wave anyway.
The standard capitalist method of getting a deal on the market has failed repeatedly. Much of the testing operation has been contracted out to Deloitte and G4S and the like. Contracting-out adds another layer of buck-passing and haggling and inertia and profiteering to the process.
The government has bluffed, stonewalled, blustered. It has blocked democratic supervision of the pandemic response except in workplaces where unions and workers have been strong enough to impose it locally.
The Tories have said that Britain has difficulty with tests and PPE because it lacks the industrial base for them. But Britain has the biggest biotech industry in Europe, and relatively large pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Compared to most countries, it has large capacity which could be requisitioned to produce tests and PPE not just for Britain but also for countries with smaller industrial bases.
The Tories, and New Labour before them, have helped British bosses impose a lower rate of taking sick days here than in almost any other country in Western Europe. They have helped bosses put a million workers on zero-hours contracts, six times as many as in 2010.
And so exceptionally many workers are under extreme economic pressure to continue to work even when virus-infected.
The Tories have kept in force with punitive “No Recourse to Public Funds” policy against migrants, introduced by New Labour in 1999, with only patchy easings for the pandemic.
Tory and New Labour policies have brought heavy overcrowding in London especially, and in rental housing especially. As of 2018-9, more than 283,000 households who rented privately were living in overcrowded conditions. The rate had doubled since 2008-9. Almost certainly overcrowding greatly increases transmission of the virus.
Tory and New Labour policies have given the UK the most crowded prisons in Western Europe, with over twice the imprisonment rate of the Netherlands and Scandinavia. But as of 14 April only 18 people had been released under the two schemes announced by the government in response to the pandemic, and now releases are stalled. Infection rates are rising fast in jails. Only about 350 of over a thousand people held in immigrant detention centres have been released.
Labour must indict the Tories and demand positive alternatives. Requisitioning. Workers’ control. Isolation pay for all.