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Editorial: Covid-19 is still a crisis – but Labour isn’t grappling with it

NEWS of the shocking death rate among care workers comes after 24 hours in which Labour’s leadership prioritised attacking its own left wing. 

These grim figures speak to how badly this government is failing people and how urgently we need to start seriously challenging it.

They also indicate that Britain is simply not out of the woods when it comes to coronavirus. 

No 10 admits a functional track-and-trace system will not be ready until the winter. 

So it is lifting lockdown rules, weakening social distancing measures and encouraging a rapid return to pre-pandemic work, shopping and leisure habits without any clear picture of the spread of Covid-19 through the population or any practical way of isolating renewed outbreaks.

It is doing so with complete contempt for the safety of millions of workers. Shopworkers’ union Usdaw has warned that dropping the two-metre distancing guidance puts its members at increased risk. So does the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union. 

The Labour leader “welcomes” the easing of lockdown. So of course do huge numbers of people. 

The shuttering of businesses, offices and schools has placed many in serious financial distress, with the self-employment support scheme full of holes and access to benefits under the job retention scheme dependent on the confidence and goodwill of employers.

Some of these, as we have seen at British Airways, are determined to exploit the crisis to launch a major attack on jobs, pay and conditions.

Others, including many smaller businesses, simply lack the cash reserves to survive a prolonged squeeze on revenues.

With the government reportedly planning enormous cuts in public spending post-lockdown and private-sector employers lining up to announce job cuts, it is clear this hardship is not going to end with lockdown — and indeed the withdrawal of government support is likely to prompt an explosion in joblessness and attendant rises in homelessness and poverty.

That’s why the debate about the speed of lifting lockdown has to be accompanied by a reckoning with the failures that led to Britain’s unusually high death rate.

In the fragmented, penny-pinching, privatised care sector, this means fighting for a national care service that “reforms the sector from top to toe,” as Unison is demanding.

In our schools, it means working with education unions pushing for a planned, safe return to school.

Requisitioning public spaces to provide space for socially distanced learning and a mass recruitment drive to bring qualified teachers who have left the profession back, so that class sizes can be reduced to safe levels, both demands of the National Education Union’s 10-point recovery plan, are essential.

When it comes to the scandalous failure to supply personal protective equipment, the fault lies with privatised NHS supply chains and the destruction of our manufacturing sector.

The Build Back Better campaign promoted by Unite has the potential to create large numbers of skilled jobs as well as address the looming crisis of climate change.

Unions are fighting and winning on the ground — most recently in Usdaw’s successful resistance to government plans to extend Sunday trading, dropped today — just as the huge Black Lives Matter protests are also notching up victories on both sides of the Atlantic.

But these struggles are being led by the trade union movement and grassroots campaigners, with Her Majesty’s Opposition missing in inaction.

And they all require formulating and campaigning around demands now.

Where’s Labour? Hinting that it is now ready to drop the radical Green New Deal programme developed by the previous leadership. 

Keir Starmer’s spokesperson says that new climate commitments will be written “in four or five years’ time,” that is in line with the parliamentary electoral cycle which he assumes is immune from external factors.

That shows no desire at all to try to work with, let alone lead, those fighting to transform this crisis into an opportunity for far-reaching change in the present.

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