Decisive Action Needed in the Fight for Covid Safety

We need decisive action from the government to support the entire British population in their efforts to stay at home and prevent out health services being overwhelmed. While we should be under no illusions that the Tories will do this voluntarily, the recent example of education workers shows that when the labour movement acts, the government can be forced.

The last-minute U-turn on school reopening was a victory for education workers and helped prevent a potential catastrophe, but this battle is far from over. Even though children (young and old) are known to pass on the virus without showing any symptoms, the government still insists on keeping all nurseries open, and are even refusing to cancel ongoing BTEC exams, meaning that tens of thousands of children will be sitting exams this week.

Adding insult to injury the government has also now redefined who counts as “critical workers” or “vulnerable children,” which means that many schools that are ostensibly ‘closed’ are now being overwhelmed by students. As the Guardian (January 6) reported:

“During the first lockdown, according to Julie McCulloch, ASCL’s [Association of School and College Leaders union’s] director of policy, there was a cap of 20% of children allowed in a school. If numbers exceeded that, schools were advised to contact their local authorities who would help distribute children across schools to keep numbers down. There is no similar cap now.

“We are certainly receiving some quite worried messages from members around the country, who are finding that if they look at the eligibility criteria for school places, in some cases they might have 50, 60 or even 70% of their pupils who fulfil the criteria,” she said. “At the moment, heads are completely in the dark, not knowing whether they can or should be saying to parents – ‘I’m sorry, we are full.’ They don’t know what ‘full’ means. If the whole point is to reduce community transmission, if we are ending up with half of children coming into school, it seems unlikely that will be achieved.”

This is appalling: the government are playing games with our lives, and the people who continue to suffer the most will be the poorest in society… those who work as low-paid front-line workers, and those whose precarious employment makes it impossible for them to afford to have time off work if they get infected with Covid-19.

Although the government still insist on propounding the preposterous lie that schools are safe, much of the scientific evidence suggests the opposite – including that derived from their own advisors. Children have always represented a largely invisible means by which Covid-19 was spread within our communities precisely because most children show no symptoms of infection even when infected. This is why last September education unions were demanding the government act to support schools to put in place safety measures to enable schools to open safely – something that the government failed to do.

One tragic example caused by the government’s criminal negligence resulted in the death of 76-year-old Maria Rico late last year. Maria had lived in the same house as her 49-year-old daughter Anabel Sharma and her children, all of whom were taking extra precautions to keep her safe by not going out or even going to the shops. They arranged to have all their food delivered. But not long after the start of the September term, when Anabel’s 12-year-old son contracted the virus, it didn’t take long for his infection to be passed on to everyone in their household.

Of course Covid-19 has more serious health implications for those who are not children, and in mid-October Anabel and her mother were rushed into the Leicester Royal Infirmary and around two weeks later Maria passed away after being overwhelmed by the deadly disease. Thankfully, Anabel — who prior to her hospitalisation had been an enthusiastic kickboxer (looking forward to getting her black-belt) — did not die, but after spending nearly 2 months in intensive care she now has severely damaged lungs and has to rely on oxygen to get around. As Anabel recalled:

“…By the time my mum and I were rushed to A&E, we both needed ITU but they were full. We only got our beds because four patients died that day, freeing up spaces. The CPAP treatment for COVID is horrific and relentless, I had to wear a plastic hood 24/7 for four weeks that forced oxygen into my lungs. It felt like sticking your head out of a car going at 30mph, it was noisy, I couldn’t see, hear, and they fed me though an opening on the side of the hood. Just take a moment…. 24/7 for four weeks. I asked them every day if I was going to die, and they said they didn’t know.

“My mum died on ITU. The kind ITU team organised for my bed to be next to mum’s so I could be with her until the end. Talk to her, hold her hand, they also managed to allow my sister to be with us too. Too unwell to attend her funeral, I watched it via live stream. I was alone, as were my family, we couldn’t comfort each other, it broke my already fragile heart.

“I am on oxygen and have life-changing, permanent lung damage. I have PTSD which is common for people who spend a long time on ITU. My nightmares are terrifying and I wake up screaming and crying, I don’t feel like me anymore! I can’t walk 5 metres without getting breathless and am fatigued all the time…”

Sadly, this story is not a one-off, and the government’s ongoing actions are ensuring that it will be a horror story that is repeated inflicted upon many other families. That the local hospital’s Intensive Treatment Unit’s were packed in October is bad enough, but now the overall situation is far more worse with health commentators saying our health system is on the verge of collapse. As Daniel Sokol explained bluntly in the pages of the British Medical Journal (January 4)The NHS is not at risk of being overwhelmed—it already is.

The only way to respond to this government is through collective democratic action taken in our workplaces and communities. We can and must bring this government’s horror-show to an end. And if the existing trade union leaders refuse to take a lead in coordinating national industrial action – which is likely — then it will be necessary for rank-and-file members and stewards to organise this themselves. Members of Socialist Alternative continue to push for such an organised response to the Tories pandemic blundering, and if you want to help us do this then why not consider joining us…

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