Essential workers should pull the emergency brake on Boris Johnson's neglect

Essential workers should pull the emergency brake on Boris Johnson's neglect
Comment: Without essential workers, our society would collapse. They should use their power to rise up, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
17 Jul, 2020
Instead of raising salaries of NHS workers, Johnson clapped to show his appreciation [Getty]
Boris Johnson's response to questions from Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition during PMQ this week appeared to reveal the prime minister hadn't even bothered to read the recent report by doctors and scientists, warning of the potential second wave of Covid-19 infections. They estimate that an alarming 120,000 could die over the winter. 

It may very well be that Johnson has not read the predictions and recommendations outlined by experts in the report, but one has to wonder whether anything would change if he did? 

The prime minister actively defied all expert opinion in the lead up to the Covid-19 pandemic. As other nations were calling for a lockdown, and the crisis was mounting at home, Johnson went as far as publicly shaking people's hands to show how little any medical advice or pleas for action mattered to him.

As long as he disagreed with the proposals by healthcare professionals and  experts, he was unwilling to engage with, let alone implement, proposals that we now know could have prevented thousands of deaths. It is important to remember that the PM's only motivation here is profit and maintaining power. Anything else is secondary and unworthy of his or his cabinet's time and attention.

The Tories, for example, had intended to force a much quicker return to schools for pupils and teachers. With children at home, parents could not be sent back to work as easily after all. It required a campaign of mass pressure from the National Education Union (NEU) in order to halt such attempts. 

The worry now, is that the PM does not feel enough pressure to even take surface-level action or to lay out a plan

The union put forward a five-step plan for reopening to the government. The requirements were basic: much lower cases of Covid-19 in order to reassure people that reopening schools would be safe, PPE and more testing to prevent continued spread of the virus, clear isolation protocols for schools where there is a case of infection, protection for the most vulnerable who are disproportionately impacted or surrounded by those who are, and adequate social distancing measures.

This checklist might seem an obvious series of conditions to be met prior to any return to "normal", whether it relates to re-opening shops, schools or work. Yet, teachers had to mount a national campaign, highlighting that the country is far from in the clear and that Boris Johnson was sending thousands of staff and students into danger, for the government to back off. 

The NEU's time and energy had to be used to state and demand the obvious, despite having to also manage a catastrophic financial crisis which is likely to cost the jobs, funding and future of so many within the education sector. It didn't stop MPs from unashamedly attacking the union for supposedly playing political games to keep schools closed… 

If you need more proof of this government's total disregard for people's lives, look no further than Boris Johnson's own constituency. Hillingdon hospital has had an outbreak of infections among staff, with 70 members of their team having to go into quarantine.

Unsurprisingly, the media outcry focused on a nurse who had been infected by her patient, and then attended a staff training. But, if the messaging coming from number 10 is that things are so "under control" that anyone is perfectly free to gather in pubs and restaurants, why would a training session
be such an issue?

Read more: Coronavirus is killing NHS workers. Their deaths were preventable

Furthermore, if tracing, protection, and - as a precondition for the other two - funding had been provided in any serious way to key workers, or at least healthcare professionals, we would not be where we are today.

So when Johnson responds during PMQs that he will do what he can to prevent a resurgence in infections, not only do his words matter little to anyone, but his entire approach to the pandemic has shown that he absolutely will not. 

The worry now, is that the PM does not feel enough pressure to even take surface-level action or to lay out a plan to take on another worrying spike.

Of course, to make matters worse, receiving any questioning from the likes of Starmer hardly invokes a sense of pressure forcing government accountability, given his appalling
track record as leader of the opposition since his election in April. A fact that was only underlined by Johnson who mocked him at a dispatch box with a joke about having "more briefs than Calvin Klein." 

However, after months of deaths, job losses, horrendous living conditions and little support during the period of lockdown, Johnson should feel rage from the streets.

We should be mapping out what it will take to go through the coming financial crisis without making the masses pay

The mishandling of this crisis by the government, its austerity measures soon to be rolled out fast and loose, its complacency towards mass job losses, child poverty, homelessness and financial instability for so many across the country are all more than enough reasons for the masses to be up in arms.

The general secretary of the NEU, Kevin Courtney, confidently and uncompromisingly defends the demands for safe work and schooling because teachers, education staff and parents have shown their power during this time.

This is the energy that should be translated across each section of society. While healthcare staff are fighting for the lives of so many, some even paying the price with their own lives, the work of mass organising, calls for accountability, adequate funding, pay and better conditions for frontline workers must come from across the labour movement and communities on the ground. 

We should be mapping out what it will take to go through the coming financial crisis without making the masses pay, how to fight for an alternative, and what a fairer and more equal society, should look like.

Education unions have put forward a collective vision of their expectations for schools reopening in September, in other words a
"Plan B" to what the government has proposed. This is what we need to replicate across every sector. In order to strengthen the power of education workers, we must build bridges with other workers and communities who are fighting and demanding more than just survival. 

The government has highlighted who key workers are: those in transport, delivery and food production, construction, warehouses and postal workers, as well as healthcare professionals. Without them, the basic services that keep our society running would collapse.

This is not only a responsibility for those workers, it is also a source of power. They can shut the economy down and force the government to listen to their demands. Now is the time to pull the emergency brakes.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.