When I was elected MP for Birkenhead back in December, I fully expected to be spending my days challenging the Tories. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would also be in the forefront of the fight against a pandemic.
And on May Day 2020 we face the harsh reality of Covid 19 tearing its way through our communities with a death toll approaching 30,000. This terrible tally has cast a shadow of darkness over a day when we would normally come together with our fellow workers, banners in hand, to celebrate the spirit of international working class solidarity.
The Corona Virus does not, of course, spare people of any class or background from its devastating illness. But even a cursory examination of the facts demonstrates that those whose lives are plagued by poverty, inequality and homelessness, those from BAME backgrounds, those who are low paid and undervalued working in the front line of fighting the virus and keeping our country moving, are amongst the least well protected to resist this silent and deadly enemy. Tragically, together with the elderly people in our Care Homes, it is these people who figure prominently in the grim daily roll call of fatalities.
Labour has, quite rightly, supported all and any measures that the Conservative Government has put in place to limit the impact of the disease on both the lives and livelihoods of the British people. And we will continue to do so without hesitation, pushing them where we feel they haven’t gone far enough.
But, as both the recent BBC Panorama programme and the various reports emerging from within the scientific community reveal, the government has made serious mistakes. Mistakes in terms of its response to the crisis but more strategically in terms of its ideologically driven policy of austerity that preceded this crisis. Austerity itself was like a disease that devastated our communities and ruined lives.
Austerity stripped our public services of their ability to function effectively. It caused misery for those who fell victim to the cruel regime of benefit sanctions, universal credit and inhuman “assessments” by the callous private companies who told cancer patients that they were fit for work.
Ten years of Tory rule has left our communities cruelly exposed and ill equipped in the face of the pandemic. The government must be brought to book for these failures.
Of course, the government is not to blame for this pandemic. But it is to blame for the many problems that have been exposed by it. The slowness to impose a lockdown when the need for one was patently clear in early March, and was advised by the science that the Tories claim to be led by, was disastrous and has pushed our death rate above many other countries. Why on earth – while so many people in Italy and Spain gasped their dying breaths – did the government allow mass events such as the Cheltenham Race Festival go ahead?
The need for mass testing has long been the guidance from the World Health Organisation. No preparations were made for this and now we are literally limping towards the halfway mark of the government’s inadequate 100,000 tests a day target. South Korea. The government must be held accountable for this, particularly given the carnage that has resulted in Care Homes thanks to the lack of testing.
And it is quite simply scandalous that nurses, doctors and hospital staff, care home staff, bus drivers, shop workers, haulage drivers, refuse collectors and post workers and many others in the frontline, have not been provided with the PPE they need to carry out their work safely. How many more NHS staff must die before Matt Hancock is prepared to say that he got it wrong on PPE, that our supplies were too low and that we failed to stockpile early enough?
When it was revealed that the billion pieces of PPE that the government claimed to have distributed included counting single gloves as part of the total, the denial of responsibility for the lack of PPE supplies was a refusal to accept accountability for an unnecessary failure by the government. It was trying to save its reputation rather than protect the workers in the front line. The fact that this has led directly to 149 deaths of NHS staff – many sent into the front line without the PPE recommended by the World Health Organisation – is an outrageous abandonment of the government’s duty of care.
Another thing that stands out in this crisis is that the government is trying to claim credit for any success but deny responsibility for any failure. This is why it angers me when I hear them speak of “our NHS” and sing the praises of “our brave front line workers”. Let us remember that it was the Conservatives who, in 2012, shattered what was left of the integrity of the NHS with their “reforms” by opening it up to ever more privatisation. Let us remember that it was the Conservatives who starved the service of funds during the decade of austerity. Let us remember it was they who allowed the likes of Richard Branson to muscle in on the profitable bits of the service.
It is our NHS – they are the ones who have been taking it away from us.
As for the Care Sector, which earned its private owners £1.4 billion in profit last year, its dedicated staff were left to fend for themselves for weeks on end without any support. Only when the reality of the terrible death rate in the homes became public did Matt Hancock decide to act – by putting a shiny green badge on his lapel with the world “Care” embossed upon it.
Finally, let us remember that it was the Conservatives who cheered when Parliament voted to refuse a modest pay rise for nurses, it was they who voted against having a minimum wage for the very workers in the care and retail sector who are keeping things going, who introduced law after law to weaken the trade unions’ ability to act against these injustices and who have lavishly rewarded the bankers, the hedge fund managers and the billionaire financiers who have bled this country dry and taken inequality to record levels.
No doubt some people will say to me that now is not the time to make such criticisms, that unity in the battle against Covid 19 is more important than holding the government to account and that we can deal with the situation after the crisis. The problem with that is the death toll will continue to rise unless the government is held to account now. The unemployment rate will continue to soar. And the future is at risk of being blighted by a regime of cuts, cuts and more cuts once the virus is beaten.
Every single day of this crisis me, my team, the local trade unions and the Birkenhead Labour Party have been working flat out to help people – to get the homeless housed, to support those denied furlough pay, to get bosses to implement safety measures in the workplaces, to source and distribute PPE to those who urgently need it, to get the unemployed the benefits they have a right to and to get food to those who face hunger as well as disease.
The spirit of solidarity has driven our efforts. The spirit of solidarity has inspired us to more efforts. Before, during and after this crisis the spirit of solidarity has helped us prevail. It will help us prevail in the future – to defend the NHS and build it up again, to eradicate poverty, racism and homelessness, to win back the trade union rights we have lost, to defeat any attempts by the Tories to launch Austerity Mark Two.
Which is why my message on May Day is simple – working class solidarity is our most treasured possession. Let us celebrate it today and let us not forget that it will be vital bin our battles with the Tories tomorrow.
Mick Whitley is a former North West regional secretary of Unite and Labour MP for Birkenhead