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Editorial: Covid, care homes and the fight for workers' rights

THE High Court has ruled that the government acted illegally two years ago by sending thousands of discharged NHS patients into care homes without even testing them for Covid.

For huge numbers of care home residents this was a death warrant signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his then health secretary Matt Hancock — whose claim to have thrown a “protective ring” around care homes has been exposed, as bereaved daughter Dr Cathy Gardner points out, as a “despicable lie.”

Johnson has already been fined for partying with staff at Downing Street in breach of the social distancing regulations his own government was imposing on everyone else. 

But even more serious than ministers’ contempt for the sacrifices made by the majority is the callous disregard for human life evident in the government’s whole approach to the pandemic.

The right-wing media talks up horror stories of the alleged cruelty of China’s maintenance of a strict zero-Covid policy, with mass testing and localised lockdowns designed to eliminate outbreaks of the virus.

The real horror story is the British experience. With 2,574 Covid deaths per million compared to just 9.95 per million in China, British people have been almost 260 times more likely to die from coronavirus than Chinese people. 

That is an indictment of a government that catastrophically failed to protect its people — and not just through incompetence. 

The order issued on April 2 2020 — “negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home” — displays a staggering indifference to the inevitable consequences of letting Covid rip among the elderly and vulnerable.

The same indifference that blights the entire care sector, dominated by for-profit privateers who pay poverty wages and rely heavily on outsourced and agency staff — another direct cause of the rapid spread of Covid through care homes in spring 2020, as workers on zero-hours contracts did shifts at multiple workplaces, unwittingly carrying the virus between them.

The whole sector needs an overhaul — something given lip service by both the British and Scottish governments. But the British government’s £86,000 cap on care costs provides asset protection only for the wealthy while the Scottish government’s proposed national care service continues to rely on commissioning private providers and lacks guarantees of sectoral collective bargaining for staff, which is essential to prevent a race to the bottom on pay and working conditions.

As our movement marks Workers’ Memorial Day, we should raise hell over the clear link between rights at work and public health.

Utterly inadequate statutory sick pay that the lowest-paid aren’t even eligible to claim, combined with the insecure contracts — often without sick pay rights — that are rife in sector after sector force staff to keep coming to work when unwell, acting as a vector of virus transmission — something even acknowledged by the Tories’ failed test-and-trace supremo Dido Harding.

Private-sector infestation of our public services has wrought havoc in NHS Supply Chain, causing bottlenecks and delays to provision of protective equipment to workers who needed it — delays that were predicted by the government in its own 2016 Exercise Cygnus, but ignored by then health secretary Jeremy Hunt (who now has the presumption to chair the Commons health and social care select committee).

But it’s hardly surprising the government ignored the lessons of its own pandemic drill, given it is doggedly ignoring the lessons of the actual pandemic that has cost so many lives in this country.

Irresponsible employers use fire and rehire or even, as in P&O, illegal fire-and-replace tactics to attack pay and conditions even as inflation soars.

Poverty and insecure work were lethal during the pandemic. Both are set to get worse. 

The labour movement needs to strike back against the decades-long erosion of our rights at work. It really is a matter of life and death.

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