- The Guardian
- Issue #1969
Boris Johnson is a gambler and lifting remaining COVID restrictions this month is a gamble with unpredictable consequences.
Repeatedly his government’s response to the pandemic has been to wait until catastrophe is upon us before taking mitigating action. Our huge death toll of 150,000, still among the highest per capita in the world, is the result.
The delta variant of COVID is spreading rapidly – the number of cases has risen fourfold in a month. Infections are already causing significant disruption in schools, with the number of pupils sent home for COVID-related reasons hitting 375,000 in the last week of June.
Ministers argue that the situation is not comparable to last year because of the success of the vaccination programme. Fully vaccinated people are less likely to become seriously ill or die, even if they are infected.
There is an element of truth to this, but it signals a distinct lack of caution given an international situation in which COVID continues to rage – not least because of the mass buy-up of available vaccine doses by the richest countries and the refusal to waive vaccine patents to allow their production anywhere.
Britain, with the EU, is one of the last countries obstructing this essential measure that even the United States – generally the most aggressive enforcer of patent rights worldwide – has agreed to support.
New COVID variants are emerging regularly, such as the lambda strain identified in Peru. This, of course, may be the shape of things to come for many years, with new COVID vaccines being required as often as new flu vaccines.
It is in this context that Johnson tells us we must “learn to live with the virus” and “exercise judgement.”
The problem is using these truisms to justify specific reckless policies at a time when infections are rising fast.
Education unions warned the government last month that masks should be reinstated in schools: it ignored them, and we are now seeing children’s education disrupted on a major scale as a result.
Similarly, telling people to “exercise judgement” is all very well when presented as a consumer choice. Those worried about being infected can decide not to go to that swimming pool, pub or nightclub.
People lack that choice in the context of work, and workers are being put at risk by full relaxation on the 19th of July.
One in ten workers has been required to come into work when it is not necessary, according to the TUC – when government advice has been to work from home.
Removing that advice does not empower employees to “exercise judgement.” It grants that licence to employers.
There have been thousands of workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 – yet not a single employer has been fined for safety breaches. It is abundantly clear that employers will exercise their judgement in the interests of profit, not safety.
This is why workers are telling their unions they are uncomfortable with what RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Union) general secretary Mick Lynch aptly dubs the “free-for-all” from the 19th of July, particularly when it is clearly against current scientific and medical advice.
If the government will not direct employers, then trade unions will need to ensure that their members are safe at work – as has often been the case throughout the pandemic.
The TUC is right to demand serious penalties for bosses who play fast and loose with workers’ safety. But we do not have the luxury of waiting for the law to impose such penalties.
The Tories and the Tory press have conspired over decades to turn “health and safety” into dirty words. But the labour movement can reverse this trend by leading resistance to unsafe workplaces.
Safety at work should be a right for all workers, and unions, our first line of defence, need to be ready to enforce it by industrial action if needs be.
Editorial Morning Star