As Stormont releases its ‘roadmap to recovery’ Rebel details the road already taken by the Executive during the COVID-19 crisis – filled with confused intentions and potentially deadly missteps.
Interested observers of the Stormont Executive’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic might have been somewhat surprised by last Thursday’s decision to extend the lockdown in Northern Ireland by three weeks.
The announcement appeared to mark a divergence from the decisions taken by their counterparts in London and Dublin, who have already drawn criticism for the steps they’ve laid to ease the restrictions. Stormont’s new ‘roadmap to recovery’ released today seems to follow this new tack.
Scratch just below the surface though, and the document presents a series of vague commitments. It does detail the economic pressures of lockdown, though, a nod to the driving factor behind easing lockdown restrictions at all. But there were few concrete aspirations in terms of testing or contact tracing, or how expansive testing will be in care homes where more residents have died than in hospitals.
Nor is there reference to meat production plants like Moy Park, where a worker tragically lost her life to COVID-19 this week, or Omagh Meats where unconfirmed reports suggest that up to 30 workers are infected.
It does appear that the Stormont Executive, in presenting this document as a clear divergence in strategy from Boris Johnson – while continuing to allow bosses to force workers in non-essential Bombardier and Caterpillar factories, and simultaneously refusing to mass test in essential workplaces where COVID-19 has spiked – are hoping to come out of this with a brighter shine than Westminster. Not hard and hardly aspirational.
Nor does it undo the reality that Stormont slavishly followed Boris Johnson’s approach from the beginning of the crisis.
As the Tories pursued their reckless ‘herd immunity’ policy, ignoring World Health Organisation (WHO) advice to initiate a lockdown, their lackeys on the Hill were right in tow.
By mid-March, after a fraught few months in office, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill addressed the press to defend an Executive decision not to close schools, parroting Westminster’s insistence on adherence to “scientific evidence”.
The DUP and Sinn Féin were undoubtedly keen to present a united front, with the cracks in their newly formed government already beginning to show. However, it took less than 24 hours for Ms O’Neill to appear before the cameras in the Parliament Buildings foyer where, spurred by public pressure, she insisted it was “time to take action”.
While the DUP are at least consistent in their disastrous outlook, the Deputy First Minister’s erratic handling of the situation was emulated by her party colleagues in Belfast City Council. During an emergency meeting held the same day, they refused to support a People Before Profit call to close the city’s leisure centres in the interest of public safety. In a further emergency meeting held just three days later, Sinn Féin brought forward a proposal to do exactly that.
Refusing to both wind down economic activity and introduce the necessary financial support to protect working class people, Stormont dithering almost immediately saw around 1,000 workers lose their jobs in the early days of the crisis, without support.
Many of the newly unemployed were instead forced to apply for measly payments under the Universal Credit system – ironically hand crafted by the Tories to force people back to work. The previous Stormont Executive consented to the introduction of Universal Credit, along with other punishing Welfare Reforms, back in 2015 in a deal which would allow them to lower corporation tax.
As of April 26, the number of people claiming Universal Credit had risen to 126,000, compared to 70,000 claimants registered on March 1. Since the wait to receive a first payment is around 5 weeks, many who claimed in that period have relied on food banks and community aid to survive.
Although eager to ask Westminster for further fiscal control to give tax breaks to the wealthy, Northern Ireland’s ruling elite have, unsurprisingly, made no such effort to ask for similar devolved powers to make capital pay its way during the COVID-19 crisis. Providing for the poor and vulnerable both now and in the crippling recession to come is clearly not on the list of priorities.
Indeed, MLAs from across the Executive have referenced ‘difficult decisions’ ahead of us – code for austerity.
On March 17, with a lockdown still not implemented, Finance Minister Conor Murphy ended (in relative terms) the government’s period of inertia by announcing a £100 million rates package to assist businesses impacted by Coronavirus. Faced with job losses, hunger, unpayable rents and worse, Joe Public would have to make do with deferral of domestic rates – small consolation from the Sinn Féin Minister and their partners in government.
This theme has continued. In the recent budget, again by Murphy, £120 million of Coronavirus aid is listed, with £99 million going to businesses. No doubt, small businesses have required support, but people plunged into poverty need at least the same amount of help. Skyrocketing food bank usage proves as much.
The available assistance for businesses includes a ‘one off’ payment of either £10,000 or £25,000. This doesn’t seem to be accompanied by clear guidance for those who own multiple businesses, nor transparent guidelines for how it is being regulated. With the RHI inquiry still fresh on the mind, would it be surprising to discover in a post-crisis enquiry that this was abused? That those who feverishly laid off workers went on to rake in tens of thousands of pounds?
While lauded for the COVID-19 measures she’s taken, Deirdre Hargey as Minister for Communities has faced calls from renters, students, benefits claimants, and migrant rights groups, among others, to do more to protect people who are not being provided for. What steps have been taken are limited and have left thousands in precarity.
Public Pressure and Workers’ Fightback
This kind of public pressure has been effective. Back in March, as pressure rose to initiate a lockdown, parents and whole school communities moved to safeguard their children from the virus by keeping them at home, chastising the Executive for a lack of leadership and forcing the divide in policy.
The at-a-loss rulers at Stormont were only thrown a lifeline when their counterparts in Whitehall belatedly implemented a lockdown. Financial aid for workers came from the Treasury in the form of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which allows employers to claim 80% of wages paid to those placed on temporary leave (furlough).
The raft of legislation introduced by Stormont to enforce this lockdown was virtually borrowed wholesale from the Tories. Despite giving police concrete and draconian new powers to fine and arrest people who breach the rules – “offenders” who have the gall to go for a second daily walk included – the new laws were sufficiently vague as to enable businesses to force people into workplaces where PPE was non-existent and adequate social distancing an impossibility.
Having earlier rejected a People Before Profit proposal that would have, among other things, seen the new emergency legislation reviewed every two months rather than every two years, so too did the establishment parties refuse calls to enforce social distancing and safe practices in workplaces that remained open. Workers were forced to take matters into their own hands by staging walkouts in protest over hazardous conditions.
In one day alone, more than 1,000 meat-processing workers walked out of APB Meats in Lurgan and Moy Park in Portadown. Just two days later, workers at Linden Foods in Dungannon refused to begin their shifts due to management’s refusal to implement infection control.
Important as these actions were, Stormont’s passivity has opened the door for non-essential businesses, such as the Belfast factories of manufacturing giants Caterpillar and Bombardier, to force employees back to work. The less than robust approach adopted by many unions wasn’t enough to remedy this precarious situation, allowing bosses and their allies in government to put profit before health.
The perceived level of neglect shown by the Executive in its failure, too, to provide PPE for frontline workers almost beggars belief. Though COVID-19 was spreading fast, a sizeable (£6.5million) shipment of PPE was not received until at least six weeks into the crisis, the delay causing unknown amounts of infections, and likely, deaths.
Coming just weeks after he appeared to mislead the public by stating that a shipment of PPE was on its way, the Finance Minister’s claim that the Executive “needed to be in the market a couple of weeks earlier” not only exemplifies Stormont’s administrative ineptitude, but also its dangerous and illogical reliance on the market at a time when it should have utilised the productive capacity of local manufacturers to create PPE, ventilators and testing kits.
Even as health workers called for factories to be taken over to mass produce PPE and testing kits, the Executive refused to challenge the market, shirking responses to questions from People Before Proft MLA Gerry Carroll when he repeatedly called for nationalisation via Stormont.
That Crumlin-based firm Randox was able to ship COVID-19 testing kits across the globe for £120 each was another glaring indictment. Their factories should have been requisitioned to facilitate mass community testing and expanded testing in care homes.
Instead, and in direct contravention of WHO calls to begin mass testing and contact tracing, the Health Minister Robin Swann clung to his own insistence that Northern Ireland did not have the capacity to carry out the level of testing required, and was given cover by his Chief Medical Officer who responded to demand for testing by stating that it was not a ‘silver bullet’. The most recent promises contained in the new roadmap are as empty as those that have been given previously. They include vague commitments, but no concrete numbers around testing and PPE and zero practical steps to detail how they intend to fulfil these latest assurances.
No wonder, then, that the Department’s COVID-19 death figures are around 30% lower than those of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), which, as of Friday (May 8), recorded 516 deaths in total.
The glaring inconsistencies around the true death toll notwithstanding, the death of over 500 people, framed by weeks of government missteps, is unnecessarily and gut-wrenchingly high.
If those statistics were not evidence enough that the amount of testing and contact tracing has been wholly insufficient, the fact that over half (232) of the Coronavirus deaths have occurred in care homes is a scandal.
In many homes where both residents and staff have been infected, it remains impossible to get any kind of picture of exactly how many people have contracted the virus. Vulnerable people are quite literally being left to perish. A public inquiry will almost certainly come.
Eamonn McCann, on Radio Ulster recently, asked if this was a decision taken purposefully. Perish the thought was the response by host Stephen Nolan who insisted there was no evidence to that effect. But as was later put perfectly by NI Human Rights expert Les Allamby, ‘a ring of steel should have been built around our care homes at the beginning of the crisis…we could have done more to prevent this.’
Indeed, when stories were pushed to papers that the Nightingale hospital set up to deal with the COVID-19 cases was ‘winding down’ the intention was clearly to garner support for the Executive approach. It was rightly met with utter dismay – how can hotspots still exist in care homes, with so many dying, if there are free beds in a hospital designed to treat patients? Who decided not to move these patients for the sake of treatment, or even to enable them to socially distance away from the hotspot?
Despite this, it is fair to say that the Executive parties, most notably the DUP and Sinn Féin, have managed to shield themselves from what backlash they might have faced following continuous blunders and their harrowing consequences.
This is in no small part due to a refusal by the mainstream media to criticise their approach for the first weeks of the crisis, which favoured soft reporting of government strategy and figures. But it has also been down to their ability, through control of the public purse and hegemonic control of their respective communities, to spearhead the provision of aid, such as food parcels, to those in need. Given these efforts you could be forgiven for thinking that these parties have prioritised the interests of the vulnerable, but community drives which have been stage-managed by the big parties and which have taken much needed funding from existing food banks have been criticised as a means to a political end.
Communities go hungry, Stormont fiddles
The lesson from this crisis is that when it matters most the Executive has been found wanting. When asked to move to a lockdown they twiddled their thumbs. When they needed to protect workers and their families they failed. When workers cried out for PPE they were still. When People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll urged the Assembly to implement a 1-year rent freeze for those impacted by the crisis, the establishment cowered for fear of backlash from landlords who have already been able to avail of a mortgage holiday while continuing to extract rents.
Perhaps worst of all, the Stormont administration has allowed the virus to spread largely unchecked due to a lack of testing and contact tracing. At the May 7 meeting of the Health Committee, the head of the Public Health Agency (PHA) Olive Macleod admitted incorrectly informing MLAs that 500 people had been recruited and were being trained to carry out contact tracing. Whether this blunder will be investigated remains to be seen.
As the Stormont Executive prepared to implement its “roadmap to recovery”, the sad news of the death at Moy Park’s Dungannon site emerged. The coming weeks will be a crucial period for protecting workers at Moy Park and beyond, defending the lockdown and maintaining public health. Key to all of this will be providing the financial security necessary to keep workers at home.
At the very least this will mean demanding that the government furlough scheme be extended until it is safe to return to work. But it will also mean fighting for rent freezes and mortgage memorandums to enable people to keep roofs over their heads, and providing safe accommodation for victims of domestic violence. Open up the hotels, as Gerry Carroll put it.
Beyond the Lockdown
Our demands should also be tied to the wider calls for an end to the cruel systems brought in under welfare reform.
On May 10, Boris Johnson presented his government’s plans to easing the lockdown, the primary tenet of which is to “reopen” the economy despite the rising death toll. The Prime Minister can almost certainly rely on the coercive power of the market to force people back to work, particularly given the Tory willingness to discontinue the financial support afforded to workers so far.
The Stormont Executive’s plans are almost certain to be a carbon copy eventually, but this is likely to prove a costly gamble.
The UK now has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe, surpassing 32,000 in total. It has still failed to reach its target of 100,000 tests per day, while more than 222,000 cases have been confirmed. The reality is that the British Tory government – seemingly unperturbed by these statistics – is willing to sacrifice more people to COVID-19 to appease their own capitalist class.
For their part, successive Stormont Executives have been only too willing to trail the Tories, be it administering austerity or mirroring their approach to the virus. Ultimately, their aims often intersect, and are in opposition to the material interests of working class people. As we look to a period of potentially deadly missteps by both ruling establishments, we must not only question their aims but also organise to face them down together.
This will be crucial not only in workplaces and unions but in communities too. Workers, residents, trade unionists and the left need to organise now to fight back, walk out, and lock down to protect ourselves, if those responsible will not.