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Editorial: Don't let the Tories lick their wounds – now is the time to force changes

HOSPITALS are reeling from staff shortages as the omicron tide continues. Emergency patients are waiting hours to be seen. The NHS waiting list has hit six million.

Charities warn that the number of households in fuel poverty could soon reach that figure too as ministers take no action on spiralling energy prices.

The Prime Minister seems marooned, written off by a growing number of his own MPs. If the government’s reaction to unfolding crises over the past two years has often been “too little, too late,” it now looks unlikely that Number 10 has the authority to impose decisions on deadlocked ministers even if it wanted to. 

Pressure may be rising on Boris Johnson to quit, but it is vital that the government’s weakness is used to challenge it — to force concessions and rethinks — and does not become an excuse for policy limbo.

“Partygate” is so devastating for the Prime Minister because of the contrast between a rule-breaking elite and the huge sacrifices made by ordinary people for the sake of the wider community throughout the pandemic. 

The gulf between their experience and ours yawns wider than ever as quickening inflation shrinks incomes and turns already miserly pay offers into unambiguous pay cuts. 

No lessons have been learned from the mistakes that allowed Covid to spread like wildfire across Britain, not once but multiple times. Statutory sick pay remains utterly inadequate at £96 a week. 

Outsourcing continues to undermine efforts to contain its spread in the health and care sectors: poorly paid cleaners and porters are staging protests at Croydon hospital later this month, backed by their union GMB, because their employer — which is, disgracefully in itself, scandal-prone outsourcing giant G4S — has stopped paying occupational sick pay if they test positive for Covid. Potentially infectious people are thus starved back to work alongside colleagues and patients.

The government has clearly given up on any measures that might limit omicron’s spread. Its answer to the staffing shortages crippling the NHS, schools and other sectors is simply to reduce isolation periods. 

There is no serious effort to address poor ventilation in schools (with 7,000 ventilators promised for an estimated 300,000 classrooms). No action to provide even health workers with the superior FFP2 and FFP3 masks that are demonstrably better at preventing infection than surgical or ordinary fabric masks. Appeals to individual responsibility are a stand-in for state and corporate irresponsibility on a vast scale.

This is no time to allow the Tories breathing space to lick their wounds or decide in their own time whether they should remove Johnson and how, perhaps (though rival factions in the Cabinet appear to make it unlikely) even fixing the sort of smooth coronation that allowed Theresa May to take the premiership without the infighting and reputational risks of an open contest. 

The government must be given no respite. Labour’s call on ministers to come clean over lockdown parties makes the important point that this is not all about Johnson: many senior government officials are likely to be implicated in rule breaches of this sort and the Conservatives should not be allowed to draw a line under the matter even if they do move against their leader.

At the same time, coming protests like that planned by the Croydon hospital cleaners on January 31 need as much public, visible support from across the movement as can be mobilised, as do the growing number of industrial disputes — from bin workers in Coventry and Sussex to railway cleaners in south-east England and many more — aimed at winning workers pay awards commensurate with the rapidly rising cost of living. Businesses, MPs, councils and decision-makers at all levels must be made to feel our pressure.

The Prime Minister’s crisis must be turned into a fork in the road for Britain.

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