Britain: On the Coronavirus and the social crisis - An open letter to the Trade Union movement from Labour Transformed

March 12, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Labour Transformed — Labour Transformed are extremely concerned about the situation presented by the Coronavirus and the inadequate responses from both the Conservative government and the organised Labour/Union movement. We appreciate a lot is going on, ‘behind the scenes,’ but believe a collective  response from the union movement is long overdue. Hopefully such a response can help to quell social anxiety and provide the leadership necessary to deal with the crisis as it unfolds over the coming weeks. 

All current modelling regarding the spread of the coronavirus suggests that the UK is currently two weeks ‘behind’ Italy in terms of infection rates, although some modelling has already suggested the UK will suffer a larger number of cases given the current rate at which the virus is spreading here. If we end up with a 20% infection rate in the UK, with only 5% of those needing ICU care –  we would need 600,000 ICU beds.There are only 4000 ICU beds across the whole of the NHS, and these are already 90% occupied. 

The slow incubation period attached to Covid19, the moment between infection and displaying symptoms will in no doubt, contribute to the spread of the virus. Without a generalised program of ‘social distancing/ self-isolation’, the risk of the disease spreading further and developing into an unprecedented social crisis remains extremely likely. 

The Conservative government’s response to this crisis remains wholly inadequate: instead of implementing the appropriate measures – social distancing, closing non-essential workplaces, schools, universities etc. – measures essential  to limit the spread of the disease, the Tories have chosen to put the needs of the economy (and the interests of the capitalist class) before public safety. 

Let’s not forget that this crisis will fall hardest upon those who can least afford to cope with it – the working class. In Italy, where all non-essential services have been suspended, food courier companies are still allowed to operate in the centre of the epidemic. Workers without union representation or  adequate sick pay are forced into a difficult choice, starve or go to work. Working during a pandemic, because of the threat of no sick pay, is not only cruel but incredibly dangerous for those who they come in contact with. Companies like Deliveroo see an opportunity to make huge profits while people are quarantined and unable to get food themselves. Capital will profit from this crisis at our expense. Here, too, it is workers who will be coerced into endangering themselves and others as they cannot afford to self-isolate themselves unilaterally. 

We, the working class, cannot afford to sit back and wait for the government to impose self-isolation in two weeks time, we need to act collectively and now, so we can  head the spread of the disease ‘off at the pass’. Trade unions and the Labour Party should be calling on their members to do just that – ‘stay at home.’ 

Staying at home and self isolating is an act of social solidarity, one that ensures that the burden of ill bodies falling onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters in the NHS is someway manageable. We demand all trade unions call for an immediate stoppage of non-essential work. We ask that union funds be made available to members taking this course of action, and that donations be made to support community initiatives like food banks and other services, which are essential for working class survival. 

We can limit the spread of this virus, but only if the labour movement acts fast and in solidarity with the whole of the working class, not just the workers they represent.  

We encourage all our friends and comrades to think about what they can do to protect the most vulnerable over the coming weeks, particularly the homeless, the incarcerated and the elderly.  Self-organised initiatives are already showing another way to deal with the virus, as in the example of Queercare, LGBTQ activists who are organising inside their community to provide practical solidarity to vulnerable members. 

The trade union movement needs to act also, throwing their resources and their collective power into this struggle for life. Unions need to create a social solidarity ‘pay,’ akin to strike funds, payments made available to workers to ensure they aren’t tempted out of their homes by the threat of unpaid bills, overdue rents or rising debt..

Instead of an authoritarian ‘self isolation’ imposed from above, let us create a collective response predicated on solidarity ‘from below’. 

As such we demand the trade union movement call for:

  • An immediate cessation of all non-essential work. 
  • A strict policy of social distancing for those who must remain in work.
  • Union funds to be made available to cover the financial losses incurred to workers who elect to support ‘self isolation’ solidarity if needed. 
  • Union funds to create a ‘solidarity fund’ that can provide financial support to non-unionised workers, food banks and other services necessary for working class survival. 

Furthermore we call on the trade unions to demand of the government to:

  • Fund wage level sick pay to all employees who do not go into work in order to self-isolate.
    Bring all private hospitals into emergency public ownership. 
  • Begin a mass testing program.
  • Emergency funding for social services
    Give the public the best possible information about the pandemic at all times. 
  • Empower Ofcom to significantly penalise any regulated media found to be spreading fake news about the pandemic.  
  • Compel medical manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies to sign planning agreements that direct research and production towards public health rather than profit, in return for public financing.
  • Guarantee full sick pay for the employed and self-employed without any thresholds or waiting periods. 
  • Temporarily suspend all mortgage, rent and bill payments.  
  • Immediate halt of all non-essential work. 
  • Make provision for pandemic response in prisons for prisoner health. 
  • End deportations, immigration detention. 
  • Remove all NHS surcharges to make access to healthcare universal.
  • Ensure families in receipt of school meals are fed over the duration of the crisis.

    If the government does not agree to support mass self-isolation by the middle of next week and agree to the demands listed above, the trade union leadership and movement must call a strike of all non-essential services.