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Editorial The government must be made to regret its insult to teachers and NHS workers

THE government’s decision to hit health workers and teachers in their pockets must have consequences.

If ministers think NHS staff will meekly swallow a 3 per cent insult, which fails to make up for a decade of shrinking pay packets, simply because it is an improvement on the previous 1 per cent “offer,” they are in for a shock.

Health workers’ unions report serious anger from staff who have battled a deadly pandemic for well over a year. 

Over this time they have been put in harm’s way by the government – by its failure to provide essential protective equipment, by the pressures caused by a staffing crisis the Tories have created.

Not only that, they have had to listen to ministers publicly deny these realities and watched as shady business figures with the right connexions have made fat profits from public health contracts.

There is a mood of militancy among health workers, reflected in the NHSPay15 campaign for a 15 per cent raise. It strikes a chord with the public – their petition presented to Parliament today had over 800,000 signatures.

The same is true of teachers, whose enormous efforts to keep children schooled through multiple lockdowns have been hobbled by ministers’ refusal to listen to professional advice, failure to plan for safe lockdown learning and repeated last-minute U-turns.

They, too, have been insulted: demonised by Tory and even Labour MPs as work-shy when arguing against reckless school reopening, though they went to work throughout. Poisonous media attacks have been mounted by the right-wing press.

The pay freeze – a real-terms cut – is a slap in the face. Combined with the NHS proposal which ministers have confirmed will come out of existing budgets – meaning further pressure on staff and services – these are indications that the attacks on pay and public services we saw in the “austerity” years are far from over.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes Chancellor Rishi Sunak is poised to make cuts of up to £17 billion a year.

Yet Britain’s catastrophic pandemic experience is directly linked to the impact of those 10 years of austerity. 

To a chronically underfunded and understaffed health service, the PPE stocks of which were allowed to run low despite a government pandemic drill, Exercise Cygnus, predicting the consequences in 2016.

To a poorly paid workforce often trapped on insecure contracts or denied proper sick pay, who could not afford to isolate when infected.

There is a public appetite to resist more of the same. The anger of NHS workers and teachers is shared by millions more. The attacks on pay are not unique to the public sector, as the fire-and-rehire storm indicates. 

Unity can be built around the need for a better deal on pay for all workers, and against the greedy profiteers who have made a killing from coronavirus.

Labour cannot lead this resistance. Its own pathetic triangulation on NHS pay – suggesting a couple of months ago that NHS workers should get a 2.1 per cent pay award, for example – means it has been outflanked by the Tory Party yet again.

Small wonder that while 82 per cent of health workers said they would vote Labour in 2019, that had fallen to 32 per cent ahead of May’s local elections, 10 points behind the Tories.

Labour is also in no position to campaign. Its relentless harassment and bullying of its own has led to an exodus of experienced activists, a financial crisis provoking mass lay-offs of party staff and a poisonous atmosphere that will kill off initiative and community engagement by branches and CLPs.

This movement must be led by trade unions, but drawing in maximum community support can give it a political weight that will make even a Tory Party with an 80-seat majority think again. Education and healthcare are sectors embedded in every community. The fightback must use that fact.

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