Labour has a responsibility to step-up and help deal with the coronavirus crisis
Our institutions are failing us over this pandemic, the party – new leadership candidates and all – need to do more
It is possible that we are about to live through one of the greatest traumas in Britain’s modern history. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, our government has pursued a strategy unique in the world.
It refused until Monday evening’s press conference to even advise its citizens to undertake social distancing, and it has refused to engage in mass testing. The virus has been allowed to spread quickly, and we cannot track the infections.
The exact detail of what lies behind the government's policy remains unclear. Wanting to minimise disruption to the economy and profit margins is certainly a factor in the discussion, though we can’t know how much it is influencing Boris Johnson’s calculations. Until very recently, the government was pursuing a strategy of herd immunity via mass infection. It finally backed away from this after a chorus of experts, and eventually the government’s own scientists, repeatedly warned that this could kill a quarter of a million people. The UK’s response is still an outlier, and unless the virus can be sufficiently controlled, that is still where we are heading.
While the government wasted crucial weeks, health workers have been sounding every alarm bell they can find. Following years of austerity, the UK has a massive NHS staff shortage and one of the worst ratios of intensive care beds per head of population in Europe, which are already almost at capacity. In the worst affected parts of Italy, older patients are denied intensive care because of the lack of capacity. Some academics are now warning that under some projections there will not be room in the UK for some patients aged 20 to 40.
Even at the outbreak of this crisis, our institutions are failing us - even with the announcement of the closure of schools. It would be easy to mistake some journalists for potential government spokespeople. But now, a heady mixture of national crisis and, for some, what looks like party loyalty, means that much of the coverage has been little more than a government line, followed by a reminder to wash your hands regularly.
But it is not just the government and journalists who are failing. The opposition has dragged its feet, too. Various figures from the Labour leadership have now finally issued statements and written letters to the government, calling for better sick pay and support for small businesses, or criticising cuts to the NHS which have left it in such a perilous state. All three candidates currently running to be party leader - an election which now seems bizarrely distant - have couched their criticisms in terms of its poor communication and lack of clarity. Overall, Labour’s response has lacked cohesion, or any clear programme of action. It has been slow and lacking in confidence, just when it needed it to be forceful.
The need to articulate a radical economic plan has never been so vital as when combating this virus. Unless workers can self-isolate without fear of destitution, they simply will not do so. Job centres will become breeding grounds for the virus if they remain open. The crucial social demands are already in circulation - sick pay from day one for everyone, and a moratorium on rent, mortgage payments, deportations and benefit sanctions; and taking private hospitals in public ownership. But Labour needs to articulate these measures with force and as a package, making the link between fighting the virus and necessity both for radical economic measures and shutdowns of non essential services.
Momentum has so far done more than Labour to bring together a strategy for combating Covid-19. Its statement, released on Monday, brings together policies and commits itself to mobilising for the effort to combat isolation and getting help to where it is needed.
Labour does not have the votes in parliament to force changes in government policy, but in a system-changing moment in which massive government spending and intervention is inevitable, simply articulating these ideas effectively may change the course of history. Trade unions could play a much more direct role, and are in pockets of economy winning concessions out of employers on sick pay policy. Workers across the economy could, if the moment came, play a role in shutting down non essential services by voting with their feet if the government will not do so.
The government’s U-turn on Monday means that we have taken one step back from utter catastrophe. But in a year’s time, we may yet have undergone a horrific, era-defining experience.Iinaction and flawed strategy will have consequences. The crisis we face is one of public health, but what we do about it is a deeply political question.
The government will be ultimately responsible for what happens, but all of our institutions are responsible, including the media and the opposition. The left must have its own independent response, and the labour movement must rise to the challenge - to scrutinise, dissent, and take action.