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Workers cannot be made to pay for this crisis

Our movement is essential to protect one another and wider society, says HOWARD BECKETT

WHAT an incredible spectacle Monday’s rose garden No 10 briefing was.

Never before have we seen an unelected senior adviser being given a platform of such magnitude by the government, to present his interpretation of the morality of his journey from London to north-east England. 

Presumably, they thought that to say something would help dampen the intense anger over the behaviour of Dominic Cummings. 

It had the opposite effect. Reasonably, over 70 per cent of people polled by YouGov believe Cummings did break the lockdown rules. 

Regardless of what Cummings may say, most people believe he feels above the rules.

The curtailing of this virus has always been utterly dependent on collective action and an enormous effort in our workplaces by trade unionists determined to protect one another and wider society. 

It will be those working people who will protect and build society after this crisis, not Cummings and his like. 

Of course the Prime Minister’s defence of Cummings is damaging to the public health strategy, but it has also, importantly, smashed any pretence that they were the anti-Establishment party of the people. The mask has well and truly slipped. 

During the run-up to the 2019 general election and in the campaign itself, the Conservatives played into the feeling of frustration of the nation. 

They targeted those who voted Leave in the referendum, often occupying left argument. 

As ludicrous as it sounds, the Tory Party presented itself as fighting the Establishment.
 
In particular, Johnson — a child of Eton — painted himself as different, not of the elite, outwith the excesses of his privileged life and taking on the system for the people.

I am sure it was never part of their strategy for Johnson to have to defend his top adviser (against the findings of Durham Police) travelling to stay at his parents’ Durham estate, during a pandemic where people were instructed to stay home and protect the NHS. 

It isn’t a good look for him and that has had an impact — government approval has turned negative, to -2 per cent, according to data from polling group Savanta ComRes.

And while Cummings’s arrogant disregard of the “Stay at home, Protect the NHS” rules points to the elite nature of this government, for many of us the rose garden revelation that he was concerned about a coronavirus pandemic 12 months ago makes our blood boil with anger.  

Why, then, the inactivity of February; the failure to commission PPE; the delays with testing; the failure to curb flights into Britain; Cheltenham; the Liverpool/Madrid match? Incompetence or herd immunity, take your pick.  

These are not people who have social service at the heart of their agenda. They are in reality manipulators of public mood in the pursuit of power. 

As a trade union and wider labour movement we should now welcome with open arms those who have had a change of heart about the government. There is no value in “I told you so.” 

There is no growth for our movement in shaming people over their past decisions — it will not draw people to us. 

There are millions of working people who can be won to our trade union movement if we continue to illustrate the ideology which underpins the disastrous handling of this pandemic.

But we must hold these people to account as the lockdown is lifted. 

Of course workers want a return to normality, to get back to work. We know that the Tories will seek to inflict the economic cost of this crisis onto workers — we can already see that they expect any recession to be paid for with lost jobs, reduced wages and a return to austerity. 

We will of course fight against this economic ideology, but here and now, as the lockdown is lifting, the safety of workers, our members, must always come first. 

Government and employers have a duty to protect workers from harm, they must be made to defer to our health and safety reps, the health and safety inspectorate must be given real powers of enforcement and, where needed, full PPE protection must be provided. 

We know that without these safeguards and without a thorough inspection regime, some of the most unscrupulous employers will seek to get away with what they can and the poorest workers will be exposed to the virus.

But ultimately for the workplace to be as safe as humanly possible is dependent on the success of the test, trace and isolate programme, which should have been the government’s main focus all along, as well as an earlier implementation of lockdown. 

Its scheme is entirely reliant on its processes being right, public confidence and compliance. 

And it relies upon the political will to make this testing available, regardless of cost, to all workers. 

If it is good enough for Premiership footballers, then it is good enough for us. 

There are so many challenges ahead, and trust in the government is falling apart. 

But pressure is working, discontent is growing. All of our efforts must be focused on changing the direction of the government and to secure maximum protection for people in the workplace and their communities. 

And then we can prepare for the ideological battle as to who pays for this crisis, it cannot be workers.

Howard Beckett is Unite assistant general secretary for legal and political affairs.

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