Boris Johnson has opened the door to herd people back to work before it is safe. He laid out plans for an “exit strategy” from the coronavirus lockdown.
These included plans to gradually reopen schools, shops and other businesses. This is a fatal recipe for spreading infections and sending death rates soaring.
He said, "We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work."
But he added, "You should avoid public transport ", an impossibility for most.
Johnson changed the official government slogan from, “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives,” to, “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.
Dave Ward, CWU communication workers’ union general secretary, said, “That wasn’t a message from the prime minister.It was a message from big business and those who put profit before people.”
“Never mind being led by the science, the British response is now being led by the money.”
He added, “Tonight the prime minister told millions of people they can immediately return to work.
“With 12 hours notice for many, telling them they can’t use public transport and with no assurances on whether PPE, social distancing and other safety measures will be in place.”
The push to get people back to work has concentrated around schools. Many workers cannot return unless their children are in school.
Johnson said that “at the earliest by June 1 after half term we believe we may be in a position” to get “primary pupils back into schools”. This would take place “in stages, beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6”.
“Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays,” he said.
The Tories had faced a backlash from unions and parents. The education unions, the NEU, NASUWT and NAHT, said there should be no increase in pupil numbers in schools until a national test, track and trace scheme was in place.
Parentkind, an umbrella organisation for parent associations, joined the unions’ campaign. An online poll of 260,000 parents found that 90 percent did not want to their children to return to school immediately after the lockdown, with 25 percent saying they would wait until September.
And in the days running up to the announcement, the Scottish and Welsh governments said their schools would not return from 1 June.
It is essential to oppose Johnson's school plans.
The Tories have thrown down the gauntlet to unions—and they must stop a reopening of primary schools in June. Unions should support and encourage walkouts under health and safety legislation if people are forced back to work.
Johnson can be beaten.
The speech was hardly the message some ministers had briefed to the right wing press last week. The Daily Mail screamed, “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons,” while the Daily Express proclaimed, “First steps to freedom from Monday.”
The Sun “newspaper” said the prime minister’s speech would bring “Happy Monday” and “lockdown joy”.
The Tories are desperate to get profits flowing again. Yet, despite high approval ratings, Johnson knows there is overwhelming public support for the lockdown measures.
A Deltapoll survey for The Sun found that 90 percent of people are against lifting the lockdown.
It complained that “despite seven weeks of restrictions” only 4 percent wanted to start a phased return to work from this week.
The Tories will likely use the whip of economic hardship to force people back to work by winding down the furlough scheme. This will push many people, terrified of catching the virus, back to work despite any official lockdown restrictions.
They will try to make the return a fact that cannot be ignored. Unions should organise for walkouts and action.
This week some of the union leaders showed some verbal opposition. On Sunday a joint letter from the leaders of the TUC union federation and the Unison, Unite, GMB and Usdaw unions said Britain cannot “return to business as usual”.
“If work cannot be done safely, it should not proceed,” it said.
Yet union leaders still cling to the idea of social partnership with ministers and bosses. “The trade union movement wants to be able to recommend the government’s back-to-work plans,” they said.
“But for us to do that we need to ensure that ministers have listened and that we stay safe and save lives at work too.”
Widespread opposition to lifting the lockdown, and Tory fears about any resulting spike in infections, has limited Johnson. But his speech will still give the green light to bosses to pressure workers into returning to work – and put more lives at risk.
The Tories’ weakness over lifting the lockdown underlines the need to push for opposition, not inaction and “partnership” in a fake “national interest”.
With Johnson floundering, concerted opposition from the unions and Labour could break him.