13th July 2020
Boots and John Lewis – over 5,000 jobs to go
The seemingly inexorable march towards a second spike in the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK continues apace, with shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, libraries, leisure centres all opening to some degree and, to a huge extent, relying upon the public to operate within and observe the rules of social distancing.
The promise of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to ‘put the brakes on’ if people do not behave sensibly is lost beneath the deluge of welcomes from services desperate to get customers back across the doors and to see income start flowing again.
At the same time, in the space of three months, decisions have been made in boardrooms across the country to cut back the workforce, operate at reduced or minimal levels and hold back on investment until there is a significant sign of upturn in demand. Major High Street names, John Lewis and Boots, are the latest in a long line of companies taking the opportunity to reduce costs by making workers redundant.
The elderly, the poor, black and ethnic minority communities are being hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of the impact upon health. They are also the most likely to be hit due to their lack of wealth, working in low paid jobs, on zero hours contracts and being disproportionately reliant on struggling public services and the NHS.
It is reported in The Observer this weekend that the government have already drawn up a list of the top twenty Councils in England where the worst levels of coronavirus are located and deemed to need “enhanced support”. Top of the list are Bradford, Sheffield and Kirklees with the prospect of local lockdowns, similar to that imposed in Leicester recently, being on the cards.
However, these rankings are based on testing which took place between the 21st June and 4th July, before the fuller easing of lockdown took effect. The next two weeks will be critical in terms of assessing what impact the relaxation measures will have on the transmission of the virus. The COVID Symptom Study, undertaken by King’s College London, indicates that, based upon data up to the 4th July, rates of new COVID cases in the UK have stopped declining, with over 23,000 suspected cases in total.
It is clearly the case that what little disposable income workers have is being drained by the pandemic, as job loss or insecurity means less spending power and certainly less outlay on major items, while people wait to see how their futures are going to work out. Even the increasing shift to online purchasing, one of the reasons cited by John Lewis Chief Executive, Sharon White, for reducing store numbers, relies on people having money in the bank to pay.
The pandemic has exposed some of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, underlining that it is moribund as an economic system capable of providing for the needs of the people.
At times of crisis the workforce will always be the first to bear the brunt. Company executives will receive their bonuses, shareholders will receive dividend payments, the banks will call in their loans. However, without money in the pockets or the bank balances of the workforce consumption, therefore demand, is flat.
Production for greed, not need, demands a level of capacity on the part of the consumer to actually consume. Low pay, no pay, or the uncertainty of furlough, is not going to encourage the consumer boom the Tories are hoping will pull them through the crisis.
There has been much talk of the coronavirus pandemic exposing another pandemic, that of endemic racism, following the killing of George Floyd and the increased profile of the Black Lives Matter movement. That is undoubtedly the case. It is also true however that the pandemic is exposing the depths of the disease at the heart of society, the disease of obscene levels of private wealth, which creates billionaires on the one hand and condemns others to sleep on the street.
The government’s measures to address the pandemic may bring short term economic relief for a few but it remains to be seen at what price, in terms of further lives lost. Even that relief is likely to be short lived as job losses blamed on the pandemic become consolidated, local authorities struggle to deal with the consequences of mass unemployment, homelessness and poverty and the NHS is overwhelmed by the deterioration in physical and mental health in the population.
The Johnson mantra of ‘levelling up’ is looking increasingly hollow.
The power of working class people taking to the streets, combined with resistance such as the Black Lives Matter movement, in opposition to the cutbacks, job losses and austerity which is inevitably coming, will be vital if a powerful force for change is to be developed, a force which challenges the very raison d’etre of capital itself, putting the real solution, socialism, firmly on the agenda.