Dani Garavelli: Forced back to work but it’s not business as usual, Boris

The one kernel of hope that has kept many of us going through this pandemic has been that it might prove a catalyst for change: that, after this is over, we might be kinder and life less frenetic; that nature might be restored, and that the inequalities laid bare by Covid-19 might finally be tackled.
Staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow join in the Clap for Carers and key workers last week. Picture: 
Jeff Mitchell/GettyStaff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow join in the Clap for Carers and key workers last week. Picture: 
Jeff Mitchell/Getty
Staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow join in the Clap for Carers and key workers last week. Picture: Jeff Mitchell/Getty

Idealistic perhaps, but still: something to hold on to as you read disheartening reports that the virus is more likely to kill those who are BAME or from areas of deprivation. Something to hold on to, as you stand on your doorstep and clap those key workers – the nurses and carers and shelf-stackers and bus drivers – who are out there taking risks on your behalf, despite being undervalued and underpaid.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the social divide. Lockdown too, which has hit those in flats worse than those in houses, and the homeless worst of all. Lockdown has underscored the gap between those who are able-bodied and those with disabilities, nuclear families and single parents, the children for whom a few months away from school will make little difference, and those whose life chances may just have been scuppered,

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These inequalities have become so glaring they can no longer be ignored, can they? Politicians will have no choice but to act: to change a system that takes from the poor to give to the rich, to better reward those workers who have so clearly demonstrated their worth.

Well, so far, not so good. There was nothing in Boris Johnson’s easing of the lockdown last week to suggest he had undergone a period of reflection. Instead, he exhorted those who cannot do their jobs from the comfort of their living rooms to get back out there and keep the economy going. Taxi drivers, security guards, builders – workers we already know are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic – urged to resume their labour with little heed for their safety; other than to say they should avoid public transport, which as Johnson must know, will be impossible for many.

In order for people to go back to work, of course, they need to have childcare; and so the UK government would like to see English schools returning on 1 June.

Given children are potential vectors and not exactly predisposed to social distancing, teachers (backed by the British Medical Association) are not so keen. So what is happening? Not a reasoned and science-led discussion about the merits and demerits of reopening classrooms, but a smear campaign branding teachers, most of whom have been working throughout and have had to learn new skills to engage with pupils, as recalcitrant and cowardly. Some right-wing journalists appeared to be one gin and tonic away from branding them enemies of the state.

As teachers were being urged to place themselves at risk, a leaked Treasury report appeared to back a public sector pay freeze to help foot the £337bn coronavirus bill. That’s an unusual way to say “Thank you for all your sacrifices.” Standing behind a sign which read “Protect the NHS”, Matt Hancock, exploiter of many a “clap for NHS workers” photo opportunity, said he would fight to make sure nurses would be “properly rewarded”, though not necessarily with a pay rise. Perhaps we could double the number of times a week we clap to two.

All of which is to say that – far from acting as a springboard for more equitable policies – Covid-19 may simply entrench class divisions and polarisation, along with our tendency to be judgmental.

It does not have to be thus. Look carefully and there is still the potential for change. Let’s start with unions. The Tory government was already making incursions into workers’ rights under the cover of Brexit. Johnson’s indifference to the safety of those he is pushing back into the workplace has been a salutary reminder of the continued importance of banding together to protect employees’ interests.

After his speech, the hashtag #JoinaUnion was trending on Twitter. Young people were asking about which ones to sign up to; there seemed to be a resurgence in interest. Soon, the power of unions was on public display. The fact the government and the right-wing press felt the need to vilify the NEU and the NASUWT for standing in the way of schools reopening is testament to their ability to hold ministers to account. According to the Daily Mail, the NASUWT threatened to sue school chiefs if staff were put at risk, which may be inaccurate/an empty threat, but will nevertheless force the government to look more carefully at safety precautions.

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In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has been less focused on pupils returning before August, and certainly not on a full-time basis. She is aided in this by the fact Scottish schools would be tailing off from the middle of June anyway so it scarcely seems worth the effort it would take to get them up and running again before then.

Unlike Johnson, she is pushing for coronavirus to alter the way society is structured. Take Universal Basic Income – the scheme by which residents would receive a universal payment from the government, with some benefits cut. This is something the SNP has shown an interest in for some time, creating pilot schemes in four different council areas, though only the UK government currently has the power to implement the scheme nationally. Asked about it at a press briefing earlier this month, the First Minister said: “The experiences of [the pandemic] and the economic consequences of that have actually made me much more strongly of the opinion that this an idea that’s time has come.”

Universal Basic Income is one of the policies being looked at by the Social Justice and Fairness Commission established by Sturgeon to consider options for a future Scotland.

The Commission predates Covid-19, but it is clear the pandemic is influencing its direction. Last week, as the online consultation went live, its convener and vice convener, Shona Robison and Neil Gray, talked of using what we have learned to create something new.

“We can use many of the changes we have already embraced to create a fairer nation where everyone is recognised and rewarded for the contribution they make,” they wrote.

Of course SNP politicians would see Covid-19 as an argument for independence, and independence as a springboard for a more equitable society. But the commission is about shaping a post-pandemic country with or without additional powers. And the message is a good one. We do not have to embrace what Johnson is doing; we do not have to accept that the way things are is the way they will always be. We can build something better.

Robison and Gray remind us the Beveridge Report laid the foundation for the creation of the welfare state and NHS – widely regarded as a positive legacy of the Second World War. It is not too late for us to create something worthwhile out of the misery of our current experience. With fight and ambition, we can surely mend our broken system.

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