Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, summed it up when he said the best response to the Tory pandemic disaster is to join a union and join the Zero Covid campaign.
Talking at a 400-strong online conference, he paid tribute to the NEU and Unison union members who had followed union advice and sent Section 44 letters to their managers saying they would not be going into schools because they were not safe. “It was not a victory,” Courtney stressed, “but it was the right thing to do”.
It was the right thing not just for health reasons, but economic ones too. It is the greatest health crisis in our lifetimes, explained Labour MP Diane Abbott, but also a massive economic crisis – one made much more protracted and severe by government failure to pursue a Zero Covid strategy. Many participants stressed the false dichotomy ‘health or wealth’ peddled by the Tory government and echoed by much of the media, while others emphasised the link with environmental destruction.
Instead of pursuing an ‘elimination’ strategy – as used against the measles or polio viruses for example – the Conservative government, along with its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advisory group and England’s Chief Medical Officer, went for limited, too-little-too-late measures to ‘control’ the pandemic. Michael Baker, the leading New Zealand epidemiologist who opened the conference, spelled out the consequences.
New Zealand adopted an elimination strategy early on. It imposed a full lockdown, with furloughed workers supported by the government. It stopped community transmissions and created a reliable system to quickly contain any outbreaks. The UK government did not act decisively or effectively. Now the UK has a higher death toll than ever. Total British fatalities are 260 times those of New Zealand, and still rising. They are a staggering 3,250 times higher than Vietnam’s, 4,300 times higher than Thailand’s, and 6,500 times higher than Hong Kong’s. These latter are among the countries that adopted a Zero Covid elimination strategy, a point stressed by Labour MP Richard Burgon. They have proved it works, and that in this way you minimise the economic damage and get society working again.
Professor Susan Michie of University College London, a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists who have advocated for a Zero Covid elimination strategy since March 2020, highlighted the continuing failure of Boris Johnson’s administration to take effective action. She highlighted as examples the numerous non-essential businesses still open, the lack of an effective test, trace, and isolate system, the lack of sanctions on employers who fail to protect workers and the lack of support for people economically impacted. The consequences are inevitable, with people going to work for fear of dismissal or loss of pay, and people avoiding getting tested because they cannot afford to self-isolate.
The Tories are responsible for around 100,000 deaths, but still have no coherent and effective strategy. So, argued Michie, they opt for a “blame and punish approach”, where people are encouraged to scapegoat others for flouting the rules and spreading the disease.
Others talked of the sickening Tory sleaze, the corrupt crony capitalism. “They’ve given away millions to their mates”, argued Janet Newsham, a health and safety at work activist from the union-backed Hazards campaign. Meantime, eager to keep the corporate machine running, “they’ve ignored workplace transmission” because “government policy is profits before people”. Like many of the speakers, she issued a call to arms: “We remember with heartache our dead, but we will continue to fight for the living.”
Bella, a member of United Voices of the World union, described to the conference the conditions which many key workers, especially those in the private sector, had to suffer during the early days of the pandemic. Bella showed us an example of the personal protective equipment (PPE) she had been forced to make when none was provided by her employer, the Sage care home in London. Care workers there are currently striking for a pay increase to £12 per hour and parity with NHS staff in terms of sick pay and annual leave.
A central theme of the conference was the universal nature of the crisis. Ann Galpin of the TUC Disabled Workers Committee spoke of the impact on people with disabilities and the ‘othering’ of those labelled ‘the vulnerable’. Jim Harte, a union activist at BAE Systems on the Clyde, Scotland, spoke of the indifference of employers to health and safety. Diane Abbott talked of the impact on students and the way in which the pandemic has highlighted the marketisation of universities, with students sent back onto campuses before it was safe because the priority was fees and rents – not health, not education, but revenue streams.
Hector Wesley from BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts) focused on the widening inequalities, with BAME people disproportionately impacted. And, looking ahead, he argued that we don’t want a ‘return to normal’. Instead we have to pose the question: what sort of society do we want coming out of the pandemic? Conference participants also raised the need to work around the way the pandemic has increased women’s ‘double burden’ of both work and home-making responsibilities.
One of the objectives of the conference was to unite scientists, health professionals, trade unionists, principled politicians, essential workers, and activists of all kinds. It was organised to maximise participation.
A well-attended Scotland breakout group floated the idea of a Zero Covid Scotland conference, but the Wales breakout was too small to take any initiative, so there is work to be done there pulling together an effective campaign. An important intervention was made by an activist from Northern Ireland who stressed the necessity of reflecting the experience of that region.
The morning breakout groups and the subsequent report-backs gave activists an opportunity to share experiences, problems, and ideas. Some spoke of the relationship between the pandemic and the wider ecological crisis. Some talked about the way that a very often well-founded mistrust of governments and ‘experts’ was exploited by misinformation spreaders – anti-vaxxers, Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists.
Susan Michie responded by saying that in order to counteract misinformation it’s important we engage with and seek to understand the fears and concerns that people have, not simply to rubbish them. If we want to be persuasive we need to identify people who are trusted and respected in their communities who can carry a message on the ground, rather than use the top-down messaging used by governments.
Others raised strategic questions about the best way to organise. Should the emphasis be on pressuring the government or taking action ourselves, or should it be both? What should be the role of the unions that are organising precarious workers, including undocumented migrant workers who may be unable to get vaccinated? There was an enormous amount of energy that will be built on over the weeks ahead.
The day ended with over a dozen workshops at which people discussed topics from workplace safety to defending the NHS to creating local Zero Covid groups.
If you aren’t yet signed up to the Zero Covid campaign please join!
You can find details of the breakout group discussions and actions here.
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