On Wednesday March 11, the World Health Organisation finally declared a global pandemic, after the COVID 19 virus spread into 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people.
After a decade of austerity, the NHS is woefully unprepared to fight this outbreak. There is currently a national staffing shortage of more than 100,000 workers. We have one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds compared with other high-income countries and we have only a fraction of the intensive care beds found in other countries such as France and Germany. All this before the COVID 19 outbreak!
Even Jeremy Hunt – the former Health Secretary who for six long years oversaw the dramatic collapse in our NHS services – is openly critical of the government’s handling of coronavirus.
Government policy in recent years has been to keep cutting the number of beds and to cut hospital capacity for the size of the population. This is now seen to be a dangerous mistake. By underfunding the service, they have placed valuable NHS staff under tremendous pressure until they become too tired and demoralised and leave the service. For those who become seriously ill with the coronavirus, it will be hospital staff and hospital beds and intensive care beds which save their lives.
What the coronavirus crisis clearly shows is that it is not enough to plan just for minimum need. The NHS also needs to have some slack – with funding and planning which can enable it to deal with national emergencies. The crisis also shows why free, publicly provided health care is not just desirable, but an absolute necessity.
We need to fight for real funding for the NHS, decent pay and conditions for its staff, and for frontline workers to have more influence over planning our services. The fragmentation of our NHS brought about by successive Tory and New Labour governments has left all of us more vulnerable.
In Spain, the government has nationalised private hospitals – a recognition of how important it is to have public control.
The GMB union, which represents NHS staff, is rightly calling on Johnson’s government to “take action in Parliament” in order to get the “necessary legal powers to requisition the beds of private sector hospitals across the UK.”
This is absolutely correct and community groups and trade unions must begin to mobilise their members in support of such demands and begin the fight for a massive expansion of existing publicly owned services.
Nationally, there are around 128,000 overnight beds in the NHS and at least 8-10,000 acute beds in private hospitals. Private providers should be forced to hand these services over to the NHS in order to serve public need rather than private greed. There are only around 4,000 adult intensive care beds in our NHS – this is just not going to be enough and it is alarming to discover that the government approached manufacturers to make ventilators as late as this weekend just gone. It is shocking that protective clothing requirements for NHS staff have recently been downgraded and many staff cannot get the protection they need.
So a huge injection in investment in our services and our health care staff is needed. Moreover, a massive programme of public works must be initiated, including requisitioning unused buildings, and a broad programme of training to deal with clinical testing.
If good leadership is not forthcoming, more workers are likely to follow the example of cleaning, portering and catering staff at Lewisham Hospital – where coronavirus cases have been treated – who have walked out after private contractor ISS failed to pay their wages.
The coronavirus pandemic also demonstrates why good pay, a decent standard of living and secure employment is also a societal responsibility. Sick pay is a good example of the importance of a good social security system to public health. About 2million workers don’t earn enough to qualify for Statutory Sick Pay. Many public facing jobs are dominated by agency workers and casualised contracts – from shop workers to carers to hospitality workers. How can these millions of people be expected to self-isolate when they will go without pay? Effectively coercing them to stay at work, even while exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, puts us all at risk.
Furthermore, according to 2019 figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are close to 5million self-employed people in the UK, making up 15% of the national workforce. Self-employed people do not currently have any entitlement to the minimum Statutory Sick Pay. Self-employed and agency/casual workers must both be given access to Statutory Sick Pay as an absolute minimum.
But even here, Statutory Sick Pay is a meagre £95 per week! It equates to only 20% of an average worker’s income while in France sick pay is equal to 50% and in Germany 80% of the average worker’s pay. So in the UK, sick pay must be expanded to meet real need. If the government was able to underwrite the £500billion bankers’ debt in 2008, then they can do the same for workers today. But this burden should not fall on the tax-payer alone, who have already faced more than a decade of austerity. Big businesses who have benefited from underemployment, and because of loopholes generally pay very little tax in this economy, should pay their fair share! If they claim not be able to afford it, then they should open their books for financial inspection by all including the public and trade unions.
Along with the growing climate crisis, the pandemic is just one of the many reasons why we need to break with the chaos of the ‘free market’, and build a rationally planned economy based on cooperation, rather than competition, and human need, not financial profit for big business.