The profound impact of the Covid-19 crisis in Britain

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In Britain, the round-the-clock propaganda of the bourgeoisie about the Covid-19 pandemic has a number of themes, but none so repeated, and untrue, as "We are all in this together", "We're all in the same boat". Prime Minister Boris Johnson has even gone so far as to reject a cornerstone of Thatcherism and say "One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society." In reality, while anyone can get the virus, including Johnson, and the Health Secretary, and the Chief Medical Officer, and Prince Charles, class society continues, and the crisis impacts on the health service, on the political life of the bourgeoisie, on the economy, and on the proletariat in profound, but different ways.

The pandemic is a disaster for the economy, it will further deepen the disorientation of the working class and worsens its conditions, and has stimulated propaganda for national unity, which the bourgeoise will try and run with as it blames everything on Covid-19. The one thing that they should not be allowed to get away with is the responsibility of the ruling class for letting the coronavirus rip through the population. There are no reliable statistics because there has been so little testing done; far more people will have been affected than the official figures show. But responsibility lies with the bourgeoisie, as already there are predictions that Britain will have the greatest number of deaths in Europe, despite having advance warning when the death toll was mounting in China, Iran, Italy and Spain.

The health crisis was predicted

The health service has not been able to cope with the developing crisis. Back in January the medical journal The Lancet said “Preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.”(20/1/20). This was not done and the Lancet's editor attacked this failure "It failed, in part, because ministers didn’t follow WHO’s advice to ‘test, test, test’ every suspected case. They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS.” And as for the measures that were put in place “This plan, agreed far too late in the course of the outbreak, has left the NHS wholly unprepared for the surge of severely and critically ill patients that will soon come” (27/3/20).

The failings of the NHS are not new. Over the last 30 years the number of hospital beds has gone down from 299,000 to 142,000. Germany has 621 hospital beds per 100,000 people where Britain has 228 beds per 100,000. Germany has 28,000 intensive care beds - soon set to double - compared with Britain’s 4,100. In Britain one in eight nursing posts is vacant. Among developed countries Britain is second lowest of all developed countries for doctors and nurses per head of population—2.8 and 7.9 per 1,000.

One question that is asked over and over is "How come Germany can test 500,000 a week but the UK can't even do 10,000 a day?". There is a growing storm over this as it becomes more and more clear how ill-prepared the health service is. Also, the question of personal protective equipment has become a major concern for health and social care workers. It's not only the lack of provision but the downgrading of the level of PPE to be worn when nursing Covid patients. Initially the NHS was using PPE recommended by the WHO but then changed to their own criteria which has led to a widespread distrust. There's also the scandal of the PPE that was sent by Britain to China early on in the outbreak, despite supplies in Britain being seriously limited.

And the conversion of exhibition centres in London and Birmingham to become temporary hospitals, the return of retired health workers, along with the volunteers who will perform non-medical tasks, only goes to show the holes in the NHS

The NHS's lack of readiness was known about well in advance. In 2016 the government ran a 3-day exercise (Exercise Cygnus) to see how prepared hospitals, health authorities and other various government bodies would be seven weeks into dealing with a novel respiratory flu pandemic. The NHS failed the test and the report was never published. The Daily Telegraph (28/3/20) described the results of the exercise: "The peak of the epidemic had not yet arrived but local resilience forums, hospitals and mortuaries across the country were already being overwhelmed. There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation's doctors and nurses. The NHS was about to 'fall over' due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds. Morgues were set to overflow, and it had become terrifyingly evident that the government’s emergency messaging was not getting traction with the public." Among the reasons given for not publishing the report was that the results were "too terrifying" and there were "national security" concerns.

Among the gaps identified were the shortage of intensive care beds and of personal protective equipment, but government austerity measures prevented any action. Although the report has not been published, its implications were taken on by a number of bodies, for example it appears that, if NHS senior management are unable to work, the military will be brought on to coordinate the healthcare system. As the NHS becomes more and more stretched both military and volunteer resources are already being used as it struggles to cope. It also needs to be said that it is not just the NHS that is being stretched, the whole system of social care is being tested severely. The fact that the number of deaths in care homes has been massively underestimated is a reminder that it is not just the NHS but a whole range of institutions that are at breaking point.

After letting it happen, the bourgeoisie was helpless in response

While the ruling class of most countries responded in similar ways to the growing pandemic, Britain, while not behaving like Trump in the US, or Bolsonaro in Brazil, was different. As an article in the Observer (15 March 2020) put it: “Rather than learning from other countries and following the WHO advice, which comes from experts with decades of experience in tackling outbreaks across the world, the UK has decided to follow its own path. This seems to accept that the virus is unstoppable and will probably become an annual, seasonal infection. The plan, as explained by the chief science adviser, is to work towards ‘herd immunity’, which is to have the majority of the population contract the virus, develop antibodies and then become immune to it."

This was the idea, linked to the government’s Brexit ideology, that Britain could go it alone, with its own experts, ignoring WHO guidelines. In particular this idea that Covid-19 could be let loose, and a "herd immunity" would develop among those who survived, would be at the expense of those who would die. This utterly cynical approach would supposedly protect the economy and, if a lot of pensioners were to die, then, "too bad". Whether those last two words were ever uttered, they certainly summarised the attitude of those in government. The government, guided by its chosen experts, had a policy of the survival of the fittest, which would be a death sentence for the most vulnerable, the old, the overweight and those with underlying medical conditions. In February Johnson had criticised "bizarre autarkic rhetoric" and defended "the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other". However, after an Imperial College report suggested that the government's policy would mean 250,000 dead, the government retreated from this position. On 16 March Johnson appeared on television saying that all non-essential contact with others should stop and that people should now stay at home. The fact that some close to the government were then saying that fewer than 20,000 deaths would be “a very good result” for the UK shows how the bourgeoisie was still playing with people's lives as though it was all some macabre sport.

Critics of government policy have attributed this to the specific negligence of the Tories, without any recognition that the response of the bourgeoisie internationally has been inadequate and overwhelmed, regardless of what has been said in praise of Germany, South Korea etc. As time has gone on the British state's response has more come to resemble that of other countries. However, populism still has its influence. For example, the UK was in negotiations with the EU to buy 8,000 ventilators, but walked away because (said a spokesman for the Prime Minster) the UK is "no longer a member" and is "making our own efforts". Later the EU was blamed for a "communication problem". The implications of this will soon be seen. For the old or those with pre-existing conditions, the approach of the bourgeoisie, in the light of the backlog in ventilator production, will be to treat the young and leave the rest. 

Many of those same critics of undoubted government complicity and arrogance during the current crisis invite us to focus ire on the newly elected Tory government, as well as its right-wing predecessors. This ignores the historic and continuing role of 'Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition’, the Labour Party, in reducing ‘public services’, for example by vastly expanding the Private Finance Initiative policy which saw an estimated £80 billion drained from NHS resources between 1997-2010, accounting for up to one sixth of local health authority (Trust) budgets and leaving debts to be paid up until 2050.

For all the past antagonism from Johnson/Cummings towards the civil service it is clear that the role of the state has been accepted in this time of crisis, in the measures that have been adopted. The slogan "Protect the NHS" has been touted at the same time as blaming 'selfish individuals' for stockpiling food, hand sanitiser, or toilet rolls, or going to work if it's not essential, or going too far for exercise. In the spirit of the wartime campaign against the black market, the attacks on petty profiteering will distract from the real culprits - the capitalist class.

One foreign import that the British bourgeoise has supported is the round of applause for health workers. This has been taken on and institutionalised for 8 pm every Thursday. It costs nothing and adds to the "Protect the NHS" campaign. But what is the NHS that is being protected? Its inadequacy has been exposed from the start. The unprotected staff are treated with contempt, the shortage of ventilators, PPE, testing etc all show how limited a service the NHS is capable of providing. The fact that the government had to appeal for volunteers shows the enormous gaps in the NHS. When 750,000 people responded to the call this was greeted in the popular press with praise for their humanity: "A people's army of kindness" "a nation of heroes" "An army of kindhearts". For the volunteers it is no doubt an expression of a desire to help out in a time of need. In practice, the need to draw on the resources of the army and masses of volunteers shows that it's the myth of the NHS that's being protected. There are no heroes, only a seriously overstretched workforce that is compelled to work in hopelessly inadequate conditions

While in other countries the imagery of war has been employed, in Britain the spirit of the Blitz during the Second World War is evoked. The UK is under attack from an invisible enemy and everyone is supposed to be 'doing their bit'. Whether in the NHS or volunteering or undertaking some other essential work or just staying at home, we're all supposed to be pulling together … behind the bourgeoise that is responsible for thousands of tragedies. 

The state rushes to the rescue of the economy

With the closing of all non-essential operations and people told to stay at home, all sorts of businesses are faced with going bust, and workers are faced with unemployment and trying to claim benefits, pay the rent, and keep up payments on debts already accumulated. Predictions for the increase in unemployment include Nomura's of 8 percent which suggests an additional 1.4 million, making a total of 2.75 million by June.

As for GDP Nomura suggests it will crash by 13.5 percent, others are looking at a 15 per cent decline. The government has allocated the huge sum of £266 billion this year to tackle all eventualities stemming from Covid-19. This could mean borrowing at least £200 billion and that rate UK debt could reach £2 trillion within 12 months, something the March 11 budget had not expected to happen until 2025. This level of borrowing, equivalent to 9 per cent of GDP, would wipe out almost all the debt reductions from the last decade of austerity.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has speculated that the UK economy could shrink by 35% this spring, with unemployment at 10%, and, with public borrowing rising at the fastest rates since the Second World War, debt to grow beyond 100% of GDP. The deepest recession in more than 300 years has been predicted.

The Bank of England has cut interest rates twice to a marginal rate of 0.1%. The Bank's quantitative easing programme, which basically means printing money to stimulate the economy, has been extended to £645 billion.

State intervention in the economy is not some sort of 'left turn' as claimed by the leftists, but capitalism's inevitable response to each twist of the economic crisis. Among the measures the government has taken are:

- The government will cover 80 percent of employers’ wage bills in order to keep employees, up to £2,500 per month.

- Similar arrangements for the self-employed

- VAT invoices worth £30 billion to be deferred

- £7 billion increase in welfare benefits

- £1 billion increase in housing assistance to help tenants;

- A budget stimulus of £30 billion, including £2 billion directly for the fight against coronaviruses, with more money for the NHS

- Government-backed loan guarantees worth £330 billion, or 15% of GDP

- £20 billion package for business, including 12 months leave for all businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality industries, and cash grants up to £25,000 for small businesses;

- Three-month mortgage leave for homeowners;

- Three-month ban on evictions of tenants.

This is just the start. The Johnson government had already begun a spending regime that had not been costed; now a whole raft of measures is being added. The economy is taking a big hit, with no concern for where the money will come from. What is certain is that the working class will have to pay the bill. Whatever form they take; the austerity measures of the last 10 years will seem insignificant in comparison. But whereas previous attacks could be blamed on 'the bankers' and 'neo-liberalism', future attacks will be put down to the impact of the pandemic.

Condition of the working class

It should be said that work – and exploitation - hasn’t actually ceased in GB. Hospitals and care homes have become like factories facing speed-ups in demand for their services. Public transport bus drivers have been notable victims of the virus and hauliers continue to bring in supplies. Food and clothing distribution centres have seen protests against insufficient protection. Defence workers – on the Clyde and elsewhere – have been asked to return to ‘sanitised’ work stations with only 2-metre ‘distancing tape’ for protection in the name of ‘national security’ while supermarket staff have been hailed as ‘proud patriotic proletarians’ doing their bit for Queen and country.

However from the point of view of immediate survival, many millions more workers have little alternative than to go along with the instruction for everyone, except for 'essential workers', to stay at home, and, when out, to practice 'social distancing'. But at the same time these conditions function as a great barrier to the development of any open resistance to the system. This enforced atomisation for millions goes along with the heroification of those who work in the NHS. While association is part of the condition of the working class, currently a great part of the work force is stuck at home subject to the 24-hour media propaganda. We're constantly told that it's all the fault of a coronavirus, not something that stems from the decomposition of a mode of production that's been in decline for more than a century.

Workers are likely, understandably, to be preoccupied with their immediate interests. Should I travel? Where can I get food? How do I keep distance between me and others who might be carriers? If laid off, where's money going to come from?

Universal Credit is the benefit to apply for, but applications have overwhelmed the DWP. In a fortnight 950,000 workers applied for UC. Workers have rung the DWP up to 100 times without being able to speak to anyone. The vast majority failed to get through because of the volume attempting the same thing. And for those who do succeed there's a wait of at least five weeks.

In surveys 1.5 million adults say they cannot get enough food, and 3 million say they have had to borrow money because of a change of circumstances brought on by the crisis.

Everything that flows from the shutdown and social distancing will – for the time being - make it harder for workers to develop a collective response. It will increase a feeling of atomisation and create a real barrier to a sense of class identity. Instead, we are being turned into an army of individual, applicants for credit from the capitalist state.

All these basic concerns of workers are likely to come first, before reflecting on the nature of the social crisis or the need to overthrow capitalism. And the leftists still exist to contribute to the disorientation of the working class. The SWP, for instance, criticises Corbyn, Labour and the TUC for expressing their agreement with government measures while demanding that the state "take over essential services from private bosses to make sure people get what they need". There is also the attempt to identify individuals as being responsible, as in Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance) who said the "The depth and severity of the crisis we are about to face in Britain was made in Westminster by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings". Others have called for the resignation of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. Looking for a culprit amongst the ruling class – as if the replacement of some of these 'leaders' would change anything – only serves to detract from a reflection on the underlying crisis of capitalism as a world system.

The head of the International Red Cross has said that as millions have either seen a fall in their income or are reliant on state benefits, that "civil unrest" is “weeks” away. He said that unrest is about to “explode at any moment” as the largest cities across Europe are struggling with either no or low incomes due to the pandemic. “This is a social bomb that can explode at any moment, because they don’t have any way to have an income.” “In the most difficult neighbourhoods of the biggest cities I am afraid that in a few weeks we will have social problems."  In Britain, there have been some disputes over workers' safety, notably wildcats by postal workers concerned about safety in Scotland and both northern and southern England [1] while binmen in Kent threatened strike action over similar concerns. But to our knowledge these actions are not on the scale of the strikes that have been witnessed in Italy, Spain, or the USA for example. And we should be aware that 'social unrest', particularly because of the characteristics of the period of social decomposition, could take any form, not necessarily that of workers' struggle on a class terrain.

On the other hand, we are seeing a certain amount of reflection on the situation. While the squabbles among the bourgeoisie continue over who is to be blamed for shortages, the state of the NHS, or changing government policy, there is a searching minority that understands that capitalism as a system lies at the basis of the pandemic, and is open to discussion on the nature of capitalism and beyond. The issue of the pandemic is something that can't be avoided as every aspect of social life has been affected and profound questions have been raised about the reality of capitalist society. And this reflection goes together with a great deal of anger over the way that workers have been treated, old people left to die, health workers left unprotected. There is the prospect that these elements could combine in future struggles. For the moment the need for discussion is paramount - not, at present, face-to-face, but in online forums and channels. Capitalism is exposed for what it is, and tries to cover itself with lies. Workers can develop the capacity to see through the propaganda and realise that only the working class can halt capitalism's passage to annihilation.

Barrow, 19 April 2020