As lockdown eases, fight for workers' control

Submitted by AWL on 13 April, 2021 - 5:15 Author: Editorial
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With the new stage of lockdown-easing, from 12 April, comes more agitation from the Tory right to lift restrictions more speedily. The question is: who will decide? And on what terms?

Scientist Ian Mackay, author of the “Swiss cheese model” of virus control, writes that in the recurrence of Covid waves across the world: “A driving pressure was to get back to making profits and to restore individual freedoms at the expense of societal safety... Wherever restrictions were dropped while lots of cases still circulated... a surge was sure to follow. It usually only took a holiday or a seasonal change or life as usual to fan those embers into another bushfire (aka ‘Wave’)”.

Does short-term profiteering decide? Or social solidarity?

Social solidarity does not exclude lockdown-easing. Lockdowns have social and health costs, too. Very long lockdowns, as in Argentina for example, fray. There is scant evidence of ultra-policed (or, as they inevitably become over time outside police states, theoretically ultra-policed) lockdowns being more effective than milder ones.

On such evidence as a US National Bureau of Economic Research survey of the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA in summer 2020 (at a time of high infection), street protests (outdoors, mobile, with most people wearing masks, etc.) do not cause infection spikes. Who controls? The cops, wanting to curb protests, or the protesters, regulating themselves?

The school reopenings in Britain have not broken the current infection-decline trend. School reopenings elsewhere in Europe in spring 2020 (starting with Denmark, in April) likewise didn’t. The new rise in Europe in 2020 came only from the summer, when schools closed again but pubs, cafés, and holiday travel reopened.

There are great social advantages to having schools open. The question, again, is, who sets the terms? In Chicago, USA, the teachers’ union has won agreement on a safety committee in each school with a union majority. It is still negotiating over details of restarting high schools in person. Workers’ control, regulating ventilation, rotas, class sizes, testing regimes, can improve safety.

On the latest survey of evidence, good precautions can provide a “Swiss cheese” layer with relatively few holes for most manufacturing and construction workplaces. Some food-processing factories and some warehouses — and some offices, like the DVLA in Swansea where union members have struck against a rush to get more workers in the office, fast — have incubated big outbreaks. It depends on getting workable precautions, using scientific advice. On who controls.

Rates of close contact between people are rising quicker again as this third lockdown is eased. That may work ok if no new variant spreads fast, but we don’t know. After Britain’s first lockdown in spring 2020, rates of virus-risky contact between people remained quite low (despite many workplaces reopening) until August, when contacts increased and infections started rising markedly. After the second lockdown, November-December 2020, contact levels increased much quicker, and infections rose faster, through the new spread of the B1.1.7 variant.

Isolation pay

The “isolation” and “financial” support layers of the “Swiss cheese” are still working poorly. Breaches of covid self-isolation among people with symptoms are a bit less frequent than they used to be, but still common. A lot of infection is from people who don’t yet have symptoms. Social solidarity calls for contacts of known-infected people, and new entrants across borders, to self-isolate for a period.

The latest best estimate is that only 16% of close contacts of infected people are being reached and asked to isolate. No-one even has a good guess of how many of those actually self-isolate.

Campaigning has won more isolation pay, most recently among Covid test centre workers. But still millions of workers will get no pay, or only £96.35 a week Statutory Sick Pay, if they self-isolate.

Millions have to try to “self-isolate” in crowded housing, when it is difficult to arrange to get food and medications delivered, and when they don’t have the technology to sustain at least some social contact online.

The government is spending billions on contracted-out Covid testing done by Deloitte, Serco, G4S, etc. (some of it of dubious benefit) and even more billions on grants and loans and tax breaks for businesses. It may starting spending billions on “covid-passport” schemes. It is spending billions on furlough pay, which benefits workers, but also benefits bosses by allowing them a smoother restart after shutdowns.

The government is much more reluctant to spend on isolation pay and on support for self-isolation (publicly-provided quarantine accommodation, publicly-provided food and medication delivery services).

Do the Tories get away with writing big cheques to their chums, and hoping for the best about balancing budgets later? Or do we force them to pay out for public services and pay guarantees which workers will then fight to keep longer-term?

The news from the vaccine roll-out is good. But the vaccine “Swiss Cheese” layer has holes. Chile has done more jabs, in proportion to population, than Britain, but still has covid deaths rising, despite an ultra-lockdown in its main population centre round Santiago since 25 March.

That may be because of the P.1 and P.2 variants spreading from Brazil.

Africa’s measured cumulative covid death rate, proportional to population, is still only about 6% of Europe’s or South America’s, and its current rate only about 2% of South America’s. But a big part of the picture there may be undercounting in Africa; and there is a real risk that new variants could produce new spikes in Africa and then worldwide. Africa’s proportional vaccination rate is only 5% of Europe’s, or 10% of South America’s.

Who decides how many vaccine doses go out, and when? Still, largely, Big Pharma. The big pharmaceutical companies, which got big subsidies from governments to speed covid vaccines, and which expect to make billions in profits from them, control the patents and the technology.

Requisition the patents, make them public property; requisition the high-tech vaccine production facilities and the know-how to expand and replicate them; and vaccination could be levelled up.

Who controls? Which interests prevail, those of profit (even if on more long-term calculations than the “let-it-rip” Tory right allow for)? Or those of social solidarity and social provision?

Campaigns like Safe and Equal are getting together with care workers to press for social care to be taken into the public sector, with workers on NHS-type pay and conditions. Who will prevail?


On jobs, which priorities will win out? Across Europe, general unemployment rates have not yet risen as much as looked likely, partly because furlough schemes have continued longer. But unemployment has spiked among young workers, and among worse-off young workers. In Britain, unemployment rates for workers of Caribbean, African, or black background in October-December 2020 were 59% higher than a year before (13.8% vs 8.7%), and for workers of white background 32% higher (4.5% vs 3.2%). Workers in zero-hours or insecure jobs, in cafés, pubs, shops, etc. have suffered worst.

If lockdown-easing goes smoothly, some jobs will be regained. But how many? On what terms? And what jobs will be lost elsewhere through cuts in government funding for local councils?

Will profit, and government budget-balancing, decide? Or workers’ struggle for more public-service jobs, for shorter hours, and for better conditions?

Across the board, the future depends on how activists can help workers organise to demand control and push back the claims of profit.

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