As Boris Johnson prepares to set out his plan for ending lockdown, following Varadkars strategy launch last week, Becca Bor argues that the lockdown in Ireland should continue – in a way which protects workers and communities – rather than profits.
Last week, Leo Varadkar announced his government’s timeline for easing the COVID-19 restrictions in the South in order to reopen the economy and social life. On May 18, the first phase of a five-part strategy will begin.
In the North, while there are no concrete plans, discussions are rampant about when and how to get “back to normal”.
Boris Johnson is scheduled to detail his plan tomorrow (May 10) and although he is backpedalling amidst massive criticism of his cabinet’s apparent excitement to get the economy open as quickly and far reaching as possible, he has suggested that some restrictions will be eased immediately come May 11, and primary schools in Britain may go back as early as June 1.
The mainstream press has parroted the position of the far right of the Tories, declaring Monday 11 “Magic Monday” and the day that “Freedom Begins”. This is of course the same week that the death toll from COVID-19 in the UK surpassed Italy, hitting the highest death toll in Europe, with over 30,000 dead.
The week where Health Secretary Matt Hancock failed 6 days in a row to reach the daily goal of testing 100,000 a day.
The week where positive COVID-19 tests from essential workers outstripped the number of positives in the hospital, suggesting the virus is much more widespread.
And the same week whereby a shipment of half a million PPE gowns from Turkey has been stuck in a UK warehouse because none of them meet UK safety standard.
In the North, DUP Minister Edwin Poots has argued garden centres and churches should reopen immediately, and already employers like Bombardier, Caterpillar and some construction sites have been allow to force workers back to work.
Whilst Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster say the “stay at home” directive will stay in place and only minor changes will be made, the fact that they are waiting to make their specific announcement until after Johnson’s speech indicates that they are tailing the Tory plan.
Indeed, Stormont has disastrously followed Johnson from the beginning of the pandemic and has failed to look at initiatives beyond those set by the Tories.
Whether it’s Westminster, Stormont, or the Dáil, timelines and dates are being drawn up for easing restrictions despite there being no sense of what has changed in terms of the spread of COVID-19. Whilst the number of new COVID-19 cases is beginning to drop and the curve appears to be flattening in the South, there is yet to be evidence that the infection rate is low enough for a safe re-opening of society.
The curve is the North is harder to judge since so little testing has been carried out to ascertain the actual spread or scale of the virus, but with what little testing has been done, we can estimate that the R number in the North is close to 0.8 which is far too high to ease restrictions, since once R = 1, the infection rate becomes exponential again.
Put simply, R1, 1,000 people could potentially cause the infections of almost 25,000 people over 60 days. But at R 0.5, the number of infections would be under 2,500
What’s more, new clusters of the disease are cropping up in workplaces: in Rosderra Irish Meats in Tipperary where 100 workers recently tested positive; in care homes where 45% of the North’s infections are; or Direct Provision centres where 164 people have tested positive.
Despite this, the pressure from business to open up shop is immense. This is a global phenomenon and as the largest economies globally, such as China, the US and Germany, lift their lockdowns and reopen their industries, the rest of the world is scrambling to keep up.
Lifting restrictions prematurely, forcing workers back to unsafe workplaces, is the first phase in an employer offensive to make workers’ pay for this pandemic. Governments globally are taking gambles on peoples’ lives in order to remain competitive.
As soon as a few companies are allowed to bring their workers back, there will be an avalanche of cries to “return to normal” as the logic of capitalist competition will compel every business to reopen in order to churn out profits.
Indeed, pubs in Ireland have already made a case to the government that they should be able to reopen in June in line with cafes and restaurants if they model their trading like a restaurant with social distancing in place, rather than wait until the proposed August date.
The effect of allowing businesses to determine if they are “essential” – the strategy pursued in the North by Stormont – or bowing down to the connected property developers – as was the case in the South as construction sites remained open – is that the interest of bosses profit is put far ahead of the health and wellbeing of people. Unfortunately, the scramble to reopen businesses normalises the impression that we are past the threat of the pandemic.
The media has framed the need to “exit the lockdown” as an imperative or else the impending economic downturn will be worse for ordinary people than the chance of contracting and getting ill from COVID-19. Establishment politicians have been signalling that we need to be prepared for austerity, as the economy has endured the largest contraction in recent time during the first quarter of 2020.
Austerity, of course, is a political decision not an economic one. But Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, as well as the DUP and Sinn Féin, are already preparing the population that “hard choices will have to be made”.
Additionally, we keep hearing about how ordinary people have lockdown fatigue and so people themselves will decide to ease the restrictions. Whilst people are certainly tired of the restrictions, and many are finding it particularly difficult for financial or social reasons, there is no evidence that people want to rush a reopening of the economy if it puts people’s health at risk.
In fact, a study in the Belfast Telegraph stated that an overwhelming majority of 91% of respondents defended the lockdown and “stay at home” restrictions. Similarly, a Guardian study of Britain indicated only 9% outright opposed the lockdown. And a study published in the Sunday Business Post indicated that 75% of people in the South were happy to see the social distancing measures continue; 72% indicated they were still strictly abiding by the restrictions and 75% said that health concerns were more important than the economic impact of the lockdown.
What does this mean for an “exit strategy”?
People North and South are rightfully concerned that governments will push to open the economy without the necessary protections in place for workers and their families. The fear that a second wave of COVID-19 infections will be deadlier than the first is real – particularly since that was exactly the case in the Influenza pandemic of 1918.
That said, the message from above that we are ready to move out of lockdown will no doubt cause people to become more lax. Stores, such as Home Bargains, have relaxed some of their social distancing guidelines, while others are no longer enforcing them; and some workers are no longer being provided the PPE that they need.
The starting point for socialists is that we need to pressure the governments North and South to have a coordinated approach to eliminating the disease, and to use the wealth and the power of the state to do everything possible to prioritise people’s health, well-being and livelihood over the dysfunctional, capitalist economy.
It is illogical and dangerous to have two approaches North and South, as peoples’ lives exist across the island of Ireland. The Memorandum of Understanding between Stormont and the Dáil acknowledges that the virus knows no border, but provides no actual linked up strategy – once again exposing the reactionary consequence of partition.
The starting point for ensuring that people’s health, well-being and livelihood are protected in any attempt to ease the restrictions is to massively increase the economic relief, social services, and workplace safety inspections to safeguard everyone.
In the South, Paschal Donohoe, the Finance Minister, had been planning to end the COVID-19 benefit packages in June. It was only last week that Varadkar announced an extension – for now. The Department of Social Protection shows a total of 598,000 people have received the 350 euro per week payment. Additionally, more than 52,000 employers have registered with the temporary wage subsidy scheme which allows them to pay their employees instead of laying them off.
This will propel people into work as an economic necessity. Therefore, the Dáil needs to immediately extend the €350 weekly payments until the end of the public health crisis and until full recovery of employment impacted by the pandemic. A petition can be found here.
In the North, around 30,000 workers have been furloughed with the Treasury paying for 80% of those workers’ salaries, which is scheduled to end June 1. Additionally, £1.3m of direct food relief has been distributed by the Department of Communities since the beginning of this crisis. Yet, it has been reported that the number of people who have applied for Universal Credit has almost doubled. With 70,000 claiming on March 1, by April 26 over 120,000 were claiming.
At the very least, Westminster needs to extend the furlough relief payments, the self-employment payments and the Department for Communities needs to extend the food relief. In Derry alone, 400 people registered and qualified to receive food parcels, but remain on a waiting list, since the aid from the Department has been capped.
No one should be compelled to return to an unsafe workplace because of economic necessity. Both governments had no problem bailing out the banks in 2008 – they need to bail out ordinary people this time around. Along with direct payments, both governments should enact a rent and mortgage moratorium for all of 2020.
The stay at home order has been extremely difficult for certain groups. Since it will need to be continued until the government has controlled, and can track and contain, the spread of the virus, social services need ramped up to help vulnerable populations through the extension of a lockdown.
One particularly stark example, exposed by Steph Hanlon in Rebel, is that, North and South, there needs to be a massive investment into domestic abuse services, including refuges that allow survivors and their dependents to be housed safely and socially distant from others.
The starting point for disease control of COVID-19 needs to be based on scientific advice. The World Health Organisation’s six criteria for easing restrictions are the obvious place to start, and a good way to assess the preparedness of the governments for any easing of restrictions:
- Disease transmission is under control;
- Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”;
- Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes;
- Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures;
- The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”;
- Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.
This can only be achieved by mass testing with results delivered within 24-48 hours, contact tracing of anyone who came into contact with confirmed cases, and targeted lockdowns of areas where cases appear.
Testing needs to exist not just in hospitals, care homes and for essential workers, but for anyone who is symptomatic.
Varadkar reassured that there will soon be the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests a week, as capacity has been gradually increased. Note that when questioned by Mary Lou McDonald he didn’t say the state would be carrying out 100,000 tests a week – merely that it would soon be capable of doing so.
The figure for tests in the South now stands at almost 155,000. But as the tests are a key element in helping to track the disease this data is increasingly less useful the longer you have to wait for results. Wait times for results in the South have consistently been 7-14 days and sometimes longer.
In the North and across Britain, the level of testing has been criminally low, as the only testing was being carried out in hospitals for the beginning of the outbreak, and still today there is no community testing. Due to the criminal outbreaks of COVID-19 in care homes, testing has been expanded, but not yet universally, to the staff and residents.
And only now, over the last few weeks, has testing been extended to key workers and essential workers.
A pitifully low 36,000 test have been carried out and the Stormont Executive has not even mounted a decent pretence of trying to carry out mass testing in the community. CMO Michael McBride might say that testing isn’t a “silver bullet”, but mass testing is an indispensable component of any workable exit strategy. In very simple terms, without the ability to test, trace and isolate all symptomatic cases at least, there will be no controlling the infection.
Criminal neglect of care home residents and staff
With care home workers still clamouring for appropriate PPE and for clear protocols for containment and isolation of positive cases within a single home, it is hard to imagine these vulnerable places staying safe as more of the population comes in contact with each other. Both North and South the scandalous outbreaks in care homes has shown a light on the neglect of the most vulnerable in society, as well as the worker safety of some of the lowest paid workers in society.
Nursing or care homes now account for almost 60% of Covid-19 deaths in the South. In the North, there have been outbreaks identified in 53 care homes, but lack of testing means there are likely to be more. Very recently, BBC’s Nolan show exposed that there is a care home in the North where 36 out of the 38 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, another with 29 out of 49 residents, and another with 36 out of 72 residents.
The situation in nursing homes is bleak, and action must be taken to protect residents. We need regular testing of workers and vulnerable residents, PPE for all care workers, proper staffing ratio of all care homes, and proper sick pay for all care home workers. What’s more, care homes should be taken into the public health system – the NHS and the HSC – in order to ensure transparency, better workers’ rights, and put resident care over profits for shareholders.
Additionally, the Direct Provision system is increasingly putting residents at risk as 164 people already have tested positive. Direct provision centres should be closed immediately and the residents re-accommodated in settings that allow for social distancing and isolation. This would be a first step in getting rid of the rotten, inhumane and racist Direct Provision system.
When the government achieves the disease control necessary to allow workplaces to reopen in a phased manner, the strictest workplace health and safety checks need to be implemented. Shockingly, through the duration of this crisis, neither government carried out any health and safety inspections of essential workplaces that needed to remain open, even as the virus was spreading rampantly. It was workers themselves who forced many workplaces to shut down, refusing to work without the appropriate PPE and social distancing measures.
Governments North and South have invested huge resources in enforcement of the lockdown restrictions by employing the Gardaí and the PSNI to set up checkpoints, stop people and issues tickets. However, the vast majority of the population has been voluntarily complying with the restrictions in order to do their part in stopping the spread of COVID-19. These resources need to be immediately redeployed to inspecting workplaces and issuing tickets and fines to employers who are not putting in place ample protections for their employees.
As Eddie Conlon argues in his excellent article, no one should be working in unsafe working conditions. Employees in every workplace should have input in the safety measures that are to be implemented, and workers should have the confidence to refuse to work and/or walk off the job if they feel their health and safety is being jeopardized.
Everyone should join a union in order to encourage collective action in their workplaces, and to be protected from employer abuses. And, the union movement must stand steadfast on the side of workers safety and health over employer profits.
A people’s recovery
This pandemic has been difficult, traumatic and a massive upheaval for billions of people worldwide. People have lost love ones, others have gotten very sick, and still others have seen their livelihoods disappear within days. Many have been trapped in homes with abuse, and the uncertainty that we all face is unsettling and anxiety producing.
Yet the ruling class intends to climb out of this global crisis by using it to further consolidate their wealth, power and control. We, on the other hand, have to organise in every way possible to ensure that peoples’ welfare and health is put before their profits. Right now, that means resisting a premature easing of restrictions – and fighting to keep in place (and expand!) the financial measures needed to keep people safely at home.
With a universal vaccine probably not on the horizon for another 18 months, we should anticipate a long road ahead until the virus is controlled. That means governments must continue to ensure enough capacity of PPE, hospital equipment, frontline staff, coronavirus tests and antibody tests. The only feasible and rational way to do this is by taking companies such as Randox into public ownership, requisitioning other companies to force them to produce the needed PPE and to expand the health service to an all-Ireland national health service.