TORY attempts to backtrack on threats to resume charging NHS staff to park outside hospitals reflect concerns over the management of public opinion. They do not amount to a change of policy.
The speed with which ministers are moving from the “clap for key workers” spirit of solidarity to resuming attacks on pay and conditions may be startling, but in truth the government has at no point offered more than warm words to the people on the front lines of the pandemic.
Even in April Health Secretary Matt Hancock was blaming NHS staff for misusing personal protective equipment (PPE) – rather than admitting that chronic shortages were the fault of a government that had failed to prepare, a privatised NHS supply system that is not fit for purpose and 10 years of Tory cuts that saw PPE stocks slashed despite drills such as Exercise Cygnet warning ministers that they were insufficient.
The same month he informed nurses that “now is not the time to discuss” whether they deserved a pay rise.
Reports that the Department of Health is now going to reimpose hospital parking charges on staff simply underline that the government is not prepared to learn from the pandemic.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, threatened with economic collapse and under pressure from trade unions, unveiled significant spending pledges to support jobs and incomes. Today’s announcement extends this emergency lifeline, in particular by offering funding for six-month work placements for young people.
Unions have cautiously welcomed the proposal, but we cannot retreat on the demands that reached such prominence in the early days of the lockdown, when recognition of the vital work being done by hospital staff, care workers, transport workers, cleaners, shop assistants, postal workers and others led to calls for a new settlement that ended the downward pressure on their wages and the increasing insecurity of their jobs.
Since the six-month placements are minimum-wage, Sunak’s plan will do nothing to address Britain’s chronic low-pay problem. The scheme does not address the mass layoffs being announced by giant corporations such as British Airways, Rolls Royce and British Gas, or the decisions they and others are making to sack staff and re-employ them on lower pay and worse terms – moves which will see a decade-long decline in workers’ real-terms incomes accelerate.
As with ministers’ exploitation of the Covid-19 crisis to hand more NHS contracts to the private sector, the government seeks to double down on the very policies that ensured Britain was particularly badly hit by the pandemic.
That back-to-business-as-usual approach is exemplified by resuming hospital car-parking charges. Health Minister Edward Argar says that not charging health workers to park at their own workplaces was only possible because of support from local authorities and independent providers. Such support “cannot continue indefinitely.”
Why? Because the NHS is seriously underfunded, as are local authorities, because of a decade of Tory cuts.
This is not just one of those “tricky decisions that have to be taken in relation to budgets by a hospital trust” as Nicky Morgan describes it, but a key workers’ rights issue, and demanding a permanent end to these charges should sit alongside demands for higher pay for all key workers and government action to rebuild our manufacturing base in a green industrial revolution as pillars of a new deal, one that accepts that the pre-pandemic status quo was unsustainable and unjust, and must be changed.
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