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Tories fail to take action we need on coronavirus

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As the number of coronavirus cases rises in Britain, Socialist Worker looks at what needs to be done to contain it
Issue 2695
The government should be taking action now to keep people safe

Boris Johnson held a special meeting of ministers and advisers to discuss the coronavirus epidemic on Monday—and they decided to do virtually nothing.

As the number of Covid-19 cases in Britain reached 320 at the ­beginning of the week, the ­government seemed to be hoping that the ­country might just escape the experience of others such as Italy.

But further announcements were expected later this week.

Newspapers report that ­measures under consideration include the closure of schools, encouraging people to work from home or the ­preventing large public gatherings.

While there may be a public health case for these actions, the government must not be allowed to halt protests or demonstrations in the name of stopping the spread of the virus.

And, if such measures as school, business and university closures are needed, working class people must not pay the price.


If the government is serious about people safeguarding their health and avoiding unnecessary contact then, for example, benefit claimants should not be called for interviews, be expected to sign on, or be sanctioned for not being able to attend appointments.

There must be full sick pay for all, including zero hours and temporary contract workers.

But instead retail giant Wilko has chosen this week to say it will slash sick pay for thousands of workers.

Bosses want there to be no ­company sick pay after the first occasion of sickness. Anyone who has been with the company for less than a year is not entitled to any sick pay from the firm.

Even long-standing staff will only be eligible for sick pay on one ­occasion per year.

The government must assure all workers that additional costs of childcare and any social care they might incur will be met. But the Tories show no sign of such a ­comprehensive approach.

Instead charities are already having to mobilise to provide extra meals for children who could go hungry if schools close.

MPs have estimated 3 million children are at risk of being hungry when schools close.

This is made up of more than a million children who qualify for free school meals, and about 2 ­million who are disqualified from free school meals because their parents work but remain in poverty.

The Tories must also act now to ensure the NHS has more resources.

The chair of the British Association of Critical Care Nurses, Nicki Credland, said, “If you already have a system running at 100 percent capacity, the idea you can get a significant amount of additional beds is just not realistic.

“There simply aren’t enough beds for them. We will need to make difficult decisions about which patients are going to be admitted to ­intensive care.”

Serious action means, for example, commandeering all private hospital beds and staff for NHS purposes. And the government should reopen all hospital wards closed due to cuts.

Cuts leaving NHS staff unprepared

Health secretary Matt Hancock toured TV studios over the weekend reassuring viewers that the health service will be able to meet the demands of a rising number of Covid-19 cases.

But health workers across Britain strongly disagree.

Jackie, a GP in east London, said that if the coronavirus does really hit “we are woefully underprepared with the NHS creaking as it is”.

She explained, “There is a workforce shortage—with around 40,000 nursing places and 10,000 doctors places unfilled.”

Another health worker at the Public Health England agency told Socialist Worker, “It doesn’t help when we’ve lost experienced staff because of years of pay freezes.”

“And with the cuts we don’t even have enough time to actually work on emergency work when we’re outside of a national incident.”

The danger of even a single undiagnosed patient in a major hospital has revealed how understaffed wards, too few beds and a shortage of doctors can suddenly cause a crisis.

Socialist Worker has been passed the details of just such a case last week.

A very sick elderly patient arrived in an A&E ward with respiratory problems and was admitted to hospital after being swabbed for the virus. In the meantime he was transferred to a high dependency bed without being quarantined.

Doctors suspected his illness was a flare-up of a pre-existing lung condition, rather than coronavirus.


With so few specialist beds available, the pressure to keep him on a normal ward would have been considerable.

When his test result later returned positive for the coronavirus there was panic.

All the nurses and nursing assistants who treated him were immediately sent home to self?quarantine.

Nearly a quarter of the staff on his ward had to leave.

Hospital management then tried to get agency nurses to fill their places, but many refused.

They said that, as they will not receive sick pay for self?quarantining, agency staff could not be expected to work in a ward that had not yet been deep cleaned.

All the nurses and doctors who first saw the patient in A&E were quarantined too.

With dozens of staff suddenly sent home for at least two weeks, even a fully-resourced hospital might struggle.

But in a hospital where staffing has been cut to the bone this is a disaster.

Prisoners die in Italy riots over visitation measures

Six prisoners died in a fire during a protest at a prison in Modena in northern Italy on Sunday.

They rioted after being told visitors were banned due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The families of some prisoners also protested outside the building.

There were also protests in 26 other prisons.

They included Salerno, Naples and Frosinone, Vercelli, Alessandria, Palermo, Bari and Foggia.

Some of these were over restrictions on visits, others over concerns about the lack of health measures in prisons.

In Foggia, some inmates managed to escape from prison but they were blocked from leaving the site, which was surrounded by armed police.

Dozens of police were shown on television deployed outside the San Vittore prison in Milan, where prisoners were leaning out of the windows and chanting, and some climbed onto the roof.

Rights group Antigone said, “We had already warned tensions were growing in prisons, and that we feared it could end in tragedy.

“All necessary measures must be taken to ensure prisoners their full rights, stopping this escalation of tension and preventing others from dying.”

Media whip up fear and judge the poor for panic

The media are simultaneously ramping up panic over alleged shortages of basic goods—and then smugly denouncing people for taking such claims seriously.

The Sun newspaper on Monday had two pages about Tesco implementing rationing and then sternly rebuked its readers for “racing after piles for loo roll”. It urged them to follow the example of the queen who has apparently “proved her immense worth” by continuing to exist calmly during the crisis.

Nearly all the signs of “panic” are media-driven hype. Most people continue to behave in wholly sensible ways despite a deluge of misinformation.

But there is a very unpleasant whiff of contempt towards the “lower orders” from much of the press.

French bus drivers strike

Bus drivers in the Paris region working for Transdev and Keolis struck last week over the lack of proper action over the spread of coronavirus.

Around 70 percent of the 350 drivers on the Keolis network walked out.

Management were forced to concede protection kits, disinfection of buses after each service, a check on protective glass screens to ensure they were undamaged and closing the front seats in the bus to passengers.

Bosses also agreed not to deduct pay for the walkout.

There was also a strike by workers in the RATP Paris public transport network at the Gare de Lyon.

GPSR network protection and security group workers struck over a shortage of alcohol hand gel and the lack of soap. Managers threatened disciplinary action but then supplied the gel and soap.

However, some RATP workers are demanding much more, including having as many people as possible work from home.

CGT union reps have complained that bosses are far more concerned about protecting the fare income than they are about protecting workers.

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