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A proper lockdown requires full financial support for workers

The government needs to ensure workers can afford to stay at home, argues RICHARD BURGON MP

THE government’s complete failure to get the virus under control means we’re back in a lockdown.

This is clearly a necessary public-health measure given tens of thousands more unnecessary deaths would have happened if the virus had run even further out of control. 

The lockdown must be done properly if it’s to succeed. But it's clear already that this lockdown is inadequate for driving the new strain of the virus right down to safe levels.

When the first lockdown began last March, much of the country ground to a halt. The images of deserted city centres were a powerful marker of the massive changes to all of our lives and the work that every single person was doing to get the virus under control. 

By the summer, as a result of the lockdown the level of the virus circulating in the country was down to incredibly low levels of less than one case per 100,000 people. That offered a real chance for the government to eliminate the virus as numerous other countries including New Zeeland, Vietnam, China and many east Asian countries have done. 

That would have put an end to the cycle of lockdowns and all the economic harm they bring. Our society would have returned to something resembling the pre-virus days. 

But the government blew it. They blew it because of a dysfunctional test & trace system handed over to self-serving profit-driven corporations like Serco.

They blew it by encouraging people to mix, by reopening schools without implementing safe school plans and by forcing students to travel across the country when it was obvious that lessons should be moved online, and through their downright dangerous Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

And they blew it away by ignoring the advice of scientists and delaying the second and third lockdowns, refusing to act until it was far too late.

And now they are failing again by not supporting workers with the financial help needed so they can properly “stay at home.”

Press reports suggest public transport use is currently twice as high as during the first lockdown. Many schools are reporting increased attendance compared with during the first wave, with some schools forced to have all members of staff attend in person.

The Association of Independent Professionals & the Self-Employed is warning that millions of self-employed people left without government support have no choice but to seek work. 

Instead of addressing the real reasons that people are having to travel, the government is running a cynical PR campaign that seeks to blame the public. 

It’s not the first time the government has sought to blame the public to cover up its own failings — which have led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. 

The real reason there’s so much movement compared with the March lockdown is that people are having to go to work. 

For some that’s because workplaces that clearly aren’t essential in the true meaning of the word are still open. For others, that’s because workers who want to work from home are being told to go into their workplaces and because furlough is not possible without employers’ consent, meaning that they then have to.

Others simply can’t afford to stay at home — however much politicians tell them to and however much they want to — after nearly a year with reduced incomes. 

As new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation documents, we know it’s the lowest-paid workers who have suffered the most financially in the pandemic. Low-paid workers are also those least likely to be able to work from home — with the TUC citing that just one in 10 low-paid jobs can be done from home. This puts lower-paid workers in obvious danger. 

An Office for National Statistics report from last summer showed that as well as people working in the NHS, social-care workers, construction workers, security guards and cleaners are more likely to die with coronavirus.

And we know that this virus thrives on, and deepens, pre-existing inequality in our society. For example, the ONS found last summer that of the 17 specific occupations found to have higher rates of death involving Covid for men, 11 had higher proportions of workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Likewise half of the most high-risk occupations for women had higher proportions of black women.

If we are to tackle this virus then we need a proper lockdown. But poverty and destitution should not be the price our communities pay for a lockdown imposed because of government failures to tackle the virus. 

Yet this week, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak made his first statement to the House of Commons since lockdown kicked in, he didn’t offer workers a single penny more.

Our movement needs to step up the fight for the economic support that workers need to safely isolate. 

A key demand must be to shut every single non-essential workplace, with proper compensation for the business and furlough on full pay for workers who simply can’t work from home.

A proper furlough means urgent help for the millions of self-employed people who have never had any support and for the many others facing ruin and so still having to go out to work. Their incomes should be fully protected too.

It also means sick pay at real-living-wage levels, rent relief and a minimum income guarantee so that people don’t fall through the social safety net.

Our success in the fight against the virus depends on a proper lockdown. But that simply can’t be done without offering people the financial support they need.

Richard Burgon is MP for Leeds East.

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