Washing their hands of it all

10th July 2021

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid cannot mask reality

The government’s hands, face, space mantra is set to take on a whole new meaning as the government washes its hands of the pandemic, fails to face up to its responsibilities and attempts to put space between its decisions and the rising infection rate.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, last week confirmed that face masks will no longer be legally required and social distancing rules will be scrapped at the final stage of England’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap. The rule of six inside private homes will be removed and work-from-home guidance abolished, as Johnson said he expected the final step would go ahead as planned on 19th July, following a review of the latest data on 12th July.

In what can only be described as a monumental abdication of responsibility at the height of a public health crisis, the government have resigned from any semblance of leadership and exhorted the public to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Air cover for this strategy was provided by Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, who asserted that maintaining the current coronavirus restrictions through the summer would only delay a wave of hospitalisations and deaths rather than reduce them. Whitty stated at the Downing Street briefing last Monday that while scientific opinion was mixed on when to lift the last remaining restrictions in the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, he believed that doing so in the summer had some advantages over releasing in the autumn.

However, government scientists have said “stronger” restrictions could be needed this autumn and winter. Newly released documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) reveal that ministers were urged to keep “baseline” restrictions such as face masks and working from home, and warn that new freedoms could create “superspreader” events.

With infections likely to rise to a rate of 100,000 per day pressure is building on an already overstretched NHS.  In part this is due to the increase in hospitalisations, in part due to people with other conditions now coming forward and in part due to the staffing pressures as a result of NHS workers having to isolate.   A letter from the Queen and the awarding of the George Cross is not going to solve the crisis.  A meagre 1% pay award is also scant compensation for the challenges NHS workers have had to face.

The rules on self isolation will also affect a whole range of local government workers if the Tories persist in their proposals for the 19th July.  At present teams maintain social distancing in the workplace meaning that, if a colleague tests positive, entire services do not have to be closed down and individuals can be sent home to isolate.  With the relaxation of social distancing in the workplace a worker who tests positive may have been in contact with any number of co-workers, resulting in the possibility of whole services being sent into isolation.

For frontline local government services, such as libraries and leisure centres, add the public into the mix, with no requirement to socially distance or wear face covering, and the potential for whole sections of service to be shut down are very real.  Add to that the risks faced by social work teams, housing repair staff and those running care homes and the mix becomes even more toxic.

The same rules will also apply to the private sector, where there will be no obligation in pubs, cafes or restaurants to socially distance or use face masks, thus increasing the danger of the virus spreading.  While the level of vaccination across the population will provide some mitigation, the dangers of the summer 2020 ‘eat out to help out’ debacle loom large.  It may be that those led by the right wing Covid Research Group of Tory MPs, who have been banging the drum to put opening up the economy before public health concerns, find that their dream turns quickly to a nightmare for many.

In spite of their talk of ‘levelling up’ the Tories know that the risks associated with the pandemic are more prevalent in the poorer parts of the country.  According to a nine-month inquiry by the Health Foundation charity, into the health impacts of the pandemic, the chances of dying from COVID-19 were nearly four times higher for adults of working age in England’s poorest areas than for those in the wealthiest places. The Foundation said a decade of widening health inequalities and cuts to public services had contributed to the UK’s disproportionately high coronavirus death toll compared with similar countries.

Johnson appears to have signalled his intent by putting Sajid Javid in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care, to replace the hapless Matt Hancock.  A clearer example of putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank could hardly be found.  Javid has said that ending lockdown is his “absolute priority”, it would have been good to see saving lives at the top of that list, and that “we have to learn to live with” coronavirus.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Javid said,

“… no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view. We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”

Rising infections may not be resulting in the number of deaths we saw earlier in the year but the government’s de facto herd immunity approach is still allowing the virus to spread at an alarming rate, especially amongst young people and children.  That, in turn, allows for the possibility of further mutations of the virus, potentially resistant to current vaccines, putting us all back to square one.

With one of the highest death rates in the world, and the highest in Europe, is this really what the Tories mean by ‘levelling up’?

Iran – election turnout further undermines regime

3rd July 2021

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi – a further indication of the regime taking a hardline

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, in presidential elections in Iran recently, may indicate a further period of isolation for Iran on the international stage.

The role of the president in a theocratic dictatorship, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, may appear to be superfluous, with ultimate power being concentrated in the hands of Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khameini. However, the selection of president is often an indication of the attitude of the theocracy in relation to its international position. 

While the president may lay claim to having an elected mandate this is illusory in any real sense as the choice of candidates open to the public is strictly controlled by the regime.  Any hint of opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy is weeded out.  Thus, for the recent presidential elections, of the 40 candidates originally submitted, only seven were allowed to stand.  These represented a very narrow range of political views, effectively reflecting varying shades of support for the regime.  Any semblance of genuine opposition was excluded.

The 40 year history of the Islamic Republic has seen the legitimacy of each presidential election questioned as the political differences amongst candidates narrows each time.   Gerrymandering, vote rigging and intimidation have also featured heavily in the election process to ensure that the regime’s preferred candidate is successful.

It was an open secret that the regime’s preferred candidate for the recent election was Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric and Chief Justice.  Raisi is infamous amongst the opposition in Iran for having been a member of the notorious “death committee”, which saw the execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners, mainly socialists and communists, put to death in 1988 by being hanged from cranes.

There was a widespread call from opponents of the regime to boycott the election, with a record low turnout of only 48.8% of the electorate voting. 

Iran went into the elections at a time when the country is blighted by economic bankruptcy due to the implementation of macro policies formulated by the clerical regime to serve the interests of the country’s capitalists and powerful super-rich class.  This is exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States in contravention of international law, following the unilateral withdrawal of the US in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

As a result, tens of millions of Iranians live below the poverty line; unemployment levels are sky-high, especially among the youth; and inflation is rampant. In addition, Iran has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, wholly exacerbated by the regime’s feeble response, which has led to the deaths of more than 80,000 people and a further sharp deterioration in the economic situation.

As a consequence, opposition to the regime in the form of street protests, openly denouncing corruption, economic mismanagement and demanding economic equality and social justice, have been growing.  The spirit of defiance, which is building amongst the population as a whole, is met with increasing ruthlessness by the security forces involving both violence and mass arrests. 

Most recently the strike by workers in the oil and petrochemical industries, which began on the 19th June, has spread to numerous sites across the vast oil and gas exploration fields as well as the oil industry in general.  According to a statement released by the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI), 28,000 workers have downed tools and remain determined to stay out until their demands are met.

The human rights record of the Iranian regime continues to be an appalling litany of arrest, imprisonment, trumped up charges and little or no access to legal representation or medical care.

The regime is setting great store by the latest round of negotiations in Vienna, to revive the JCPOA, as a means to reverse the economic decline.  While taking a belligerent stance towards the United States in public the Iranian regime are all too aware that to engage in international markets access to dollars and international financial institutions is vital.

For its part the US is equally aware of Iran’s weakness and this will no doubt form part of US calculations as the negotiations progress.   It will certainly take precedence over any human rights concerns as the US looks to open up Iranian markets and exploit the potential for utilising Iran as a source of cheap labour.

Decades of neoliberal economic restructuring based on IMF prescriptions and internal corruption within the regime, have vastly increased the private wealth of the upper layers of the clergy in Iran, while producing a weak and hollowed-out national economy, fully reliant on the export of crude oil, itself restricted due to the sanctions regime.

The outcome of the election on 18th June has seen the installation of an even more vicious, anti-democratic, and fiercely entrenched Islamist administration in Iran. This will necessitate the beginning of an era of reinvigorated campaigning for the rights of the Iranian people.  This will be for trade union rights, women’s rights, the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of association, and much more. The international campaign of solidarity with the struggle of the Iranian people for peace, human and democratic rights, and social justice, must step up and demonstrate its effectiveness.

For more information go to www.codir.net

COVID-19 – Co-operation not competition vital

26th June 2021

Vaccine equity – essential for poorer nations

Big Pharma drug firms, led by US companies Pfizer and Moderna, stand to make billions of dollars from their COVID-19 vaccines, boosted by the recent G7 pledge to vaccinate the entire world by the end of 2022, with the global market for the vaccines at an estimated $70 billion (£50 bn).  The G7 pledge to donate a billion doses to the international body Covax, by the end of the year, is still well short of the 11 billion doses the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates is need to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable people over the same timescale.

Pfizer and Moderna alone, charging $30 per person for the necessary two shots, could make more than $50 bn in revenues.  Pfizer has already announced that it is likely to make $26 bn in 2021, a third of its annual revenue.  Moderna, funded by the US government to develop its vaccine, is expected to generate revenue of $19.2 bn this year.

The British-Swedish produced Astra Zeneca and the US based Johnson and Johnson have pledged to provide vaccines on a not for profit basis until the pandemic ends. However, even Johnson and Johnson are looking to generate $6.6 bn in revenue this year with a forecast $5.2 bn in sales forecast in 2021 for Astra Zeneca.

Latest data suggests that 2.5 billion doses of vaccine have been administered in 180 countries.  However, distribution is massively uneven, with higher income countries vaccinated 30 times faster than those with lowest incomes.

The campaign to waive patents is gathering some international momentum however.  Estimates suggest that the world’s population could be vaccinated at a cost of up to $25 bn (£18 bn) compared to the estimated $100 bn if drug firms maintain their current level of charges.

From 18th – 21st June a four day summit organised by Progressive International involved the national governments of Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as well as the regional governments of Kisumu, Kenya and Kerala, India, alongside political leaders from 20 countries, healthcare workers, vaccine manufacturers and public health experts, to make concrete commitments to advance vaccine internationalism.

At the summit Cuba and Mexico offered their nationally developed vaccines in clinical trials, Cuba’s Soberana 2, Abdala, and Mambisa and Mexico’s Patria, to new partners to openly collaborate on vaccine trials and licensing. The offer of open, rather than exclusive, licensing is hugely significant. The majority of Covid-19 vaccines operate as full monopolies, and have not been offered to any other manufacturers to make. The minority of vaccines that have been offered to others, have been licensed on a limited or exclusive basis, such as AstraZeneca’s agreement with India’s Serum Institute, which shuts out other Indian manufacturers from making it.

It has been extensively reported that the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which developed the vaccine, had originally intended to offer it to the world on an open license basis, but instead entered into an exclusive arrangement with AstraZeneca on the urging of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The summit also saw a pledge from Argentina to share the advanced regulatory capacities of ANMAT, Argentina’s state regulatory entity, to collect data on new vaccines and share this with countries throughout the region, including Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, to speed up the process of approval of vaccines.

Dr. Carla Vizzotti, Argentina’s Health Minister, committed to extending this facility to any country in need. She said,

“We have worked with Summit participants like Cuba and Mexico to synchronise our regulatory systems in order to facilitate stronger cooperation and enhance access of the entire population to vaccines, medicines and new technologies from a regulatory standpoint. Without a doubt, we extend this cooperation to all countries of the world – above all, those in the region of Africa. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer our regulatory capacity to the world.”

Countries at the summit with considerable production capabilities, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, pledged to increase manufacturing in order to produce enough doses to export to other countries.  Venezuela, in an official government paper tabled at the Summit, offered to lend its manufacturing industry to “ensure the distribution of supplies to the areas of greatest need at any given moment.”

The Progressive International plans to organise further meetings to provide a framework for the proposed integration of capacities and ongoing collaboration between participants, aimed at expanding the emerging alliance for vaccine internationalism.

Meanwhile the economic forecasts of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predict that the world economy is on course to bounce back from the pandemic.  This official optimism appears to be largely based upon the success of vaccination roll out in Europe, China and the United States.  However, even across Europe vaccine success is patchy and the Delta variant is gaining ground across the continent.

Without international co-operation, without a relaxation of patent exclusivity, without a real commitment to ensuring vaccine equity in the world’s poorer nations economic predictions will not be worth the paper they are printed on. 

The striving for market dominance and profit, endemic to the capitalist system, remains the greatest barrier to bringing the virus under control and ending the current pandemic.  The WHO has repeatedly stressed that no-one is safe until everyone is safe.  The fact remains that safety will only come from co-operation and not from competition, a concept the capitalist world struggles with, the result being thousands of unnecessary deaths worldwide.

More work, less pay, no protection

19th June 2021

Greek workers show their opposition to further austerity

The programme of the European Union, to undermine its weaker economies at the expense of supporting the stronger economies of Germany and France at its core, continues apace this week with the attempt to further impoverish the Greek people.  European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen attempted to sugar the pill saying that,

“The Commission has given the green light for Greece’s national recovery plan”, adding, “This plan…belongs to the Greek people and will transform the Greek economy.”

Von der Leyen may have missed the obvious fact that thousands of the Greek people have been out on the streets in protest against the plan and even the vote in the Greek Parliament only showed a majority of 158 to 142 in favour of the Bill, hardly a landslide by any means and a reflection of the deep divisions in Greek society.

Right wing Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has conspired with the EU to come up with a package which will undermine workers rights.  The Labour Bill will allow for a working day of up to 10 hours, based upon individual contracts between workers and employers, it will undermine the right to strike and restrict trade union activity.

The anti-trade union Bill is aimed at unlocking a further €30.5 billion from the EU to support the business sector, adding to the already staggering €240 billion debt owing to the EU and burdening the people of Greece.

General secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Dimitris Koutsoumbas, was trenchant in his criticism of the Bill in the Greek Parliament, stating,

“The anti-labour bill that you are preparing to vote for today is, according to the Minister of Labour, a bill of the contemporary era! If so, then why do they take the working conditions back a century, turning workers into slaves in the 21st century? Why do they bring about an increase instead of a decrease in working time, work from dusk till dawn, persecutions of trade union, and strike-breaking? In the contemporary era, of the huge development of technology and science, what is contemporary is to reduce working time, to work 7 hours–5 days–35 hours a week. What is contemporary is to secure a job for everyone, with satisfactory terms of pay and rights; and not to return to the working conditions of the Middle Ages. That is why your monstrous law will remain on paper, like so many other unjust laws before that.”

As the Bill was being passed, tens of thousands of demonstrators were participating in demonstrations protesting against the anti-labour bill all over Greece.

The anti-labour bill is the latest step in a decade of attacks upon the public sector and working class in Greece, as EU imposed austerity programmes continue to impose compliance with EU rules and the intensification of exploitation in favour of the Greek business class and European corporations.

Critics have accused Mitsotakis of exploiting lockdowns imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to push the bill through parliament.

While the bill has survived a parliamentary vote, mass action on the streets has continued and is likely to persist, as the campaign by the trade union movement and left wing political parties continues, with the aim of rendering the bill unworkable and ultimately ensuring its repeal.

The austerity programmes imposed upon Greece by the EU may just be a foretaste of what is to come across Europe, as governments adjust their economic projections in order to claw back essential spend to support the public throughout the pandemic.  Being outside of the EU will not save British workers in this regard.  The costs of any crisis are inevitably passed on to the working class.  In spite of the talk of ‘levelling up’ in Britain the Tory leopard is unlikely to change its spots when it comes to the crunch.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may have succumbed to public health pressure in order to extend lockdown restrictions for a further four weeks but is unlikely to resist the siren voices of the hardline Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs indefinitely.  Once it comes to paying for the crisis their voices will be the loudest in the ‘pro-business’ lobby, a euphemism for anti-working class action aimed at giving employers greater rights to hire and fire.

The language will not be so stark, it will be dressed in the clothing of economic recovery, as being essential for growth, as being key to getting back to business as usual even to, ‘build back better’ in the already worn out Tory phrase. 

The attack on Greek workers is being carried out under cover of ‘modernising the economy’, a modernisation that Greek workers are resisting.

We must ensure that when similar calls for ‘modernisation’ are made for British workers the response will be equally militant.

China on their minds

11th June 2021

Bonhomie and bluster – Biden and Johnson meet ahead of the G7 in Cornwall

The notional leaders of the so-called free world gather this weekend at the G7 summit in Cornwall to discuss the big issues of the day.  Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and security threats, real or perceived, are all likely to feature as part of the agenda.

In foreign policy terms US President Joe Biden has made the promise, regarded by many as a threat, that ‘America is back’.   The phrase certainly rang hollow in the streets of Gaza recently, as US manufactured missiles rained down upon a largely defenceless population, courtesy of the Israeli Defence Force. 

It certainly plays no better in the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, fuelled by US and UK weaponry, with the Saudi dictatorship this time pulling the trigger.

The UK press has already been effusive about the initial meeting between Biden and British Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, with Johnson himself describing the meeting with Biden as being like a “breath of fresh air.”  The Trump presidency did not set the bar too high in that respect so Biden is going to score initially for simply not being Trump.

The new President’s easy manner and natural bonhomie will no doubt endear him to the liberal press, always desperate to find a glimmer of hope that the leaders of the so called free world can co-operate, can come up with equitable solutions to global problems, can put aside the cut-throat competition which is the basis of capitalism and deliver something new.

It is a hope which can occasionally find its moment.  In World War 2 the forces of capitalism had allowed their usually caged attack dog, fascism, to get out of control and present an existential threat to the world order.  Only through co-operation with the Soviet Union, pragmatically regarded by the West as the lesser of two evils, could the fascist threat be put back in its cage.  It did not take the West long to revert to type however, initiating the Cold War against the Soviet Union and forming the aggressive NATO military alliance as its spearhead.

Following the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991 however, having supported the forces which turned back the clock on socialist development, initially through the drunkard Yeltsin and subsequently the autocrat Putin, the re-establishment of capitalism in Eastern Europe was not something the West could easily argue against.  The transformation of anti-Sovietism into the routine anti-Russian sentiment which is the common currency of Western politics took a little more time.

The manoeuvrings of Vladimir Putin to retain political control at all costs has made the task of demonising Russia that much easier.  Accusations of interference in elections and of the political assassination of enemies abroad have contributed to the picture being painted of a Russian threat.  Russian actions in the Ukraine, Crimea and intervening at the request of the Assad government in Syria have, for many in the West, sealed the deal, if indeed the deal was ever in doubt.

The extent to which the G7 may agree to co-operate is, of necessity, predicated upon the concept of there being an external threat, against which the economic might of the G7 and the military power of NATO must be in a state of readiness to repel.  The Cold War narrative, subscribed to across the political spectrum, was to hold back the tide of communism, embodied by the Soviet Union.

There is certainly no dissent in the G7 that Russia is anything other than a threat to Western interests.  Capitalism is nothing if not competitive and even a relatively weak capitalist state such as Russia represents a potential threat.  Added to this is the new dimension of the growing economic and technological threat which China poses.

Free from the pressures of monopoly capitalism, China was for many years a source of low cost consumer goods for Western markets. This could be tolerated as being no threat to the market dominance of Western corporations.  That is all changing.

The challenge which Chinese technology represents to the US hi-tech sector has resulted in the pressure to squeeze Huawei out of the 5G market and increase reliance upon US manufactured components.  Chinese investment in South America and Africa is seen by the West as a threat to the interests of Western corporations, while the Chinese Belt and Road programme is seen as a direct challenge to the stranglehold of the West, and its proxy fronts the IMF and World Bank, upon developing economies.

Amid the backslapping, sun bathing and beer swilling of the G7 summit some warm words about tackling the pandemic and addressing the climate crisis will no doubt emerge.  Commitments on both will no doubt find their way onto the summit’s final communique. By all accounts any reference to China will be missing.

There is little doubt however, that on the return flight home on Airforce One, it is China that will be on President Joe Biden’s mind.

Global tax and worker’s fightbacks

6th June 2021

Amazon – what price prime delivery?

The G7 Finance Ministers of the world’s richest nations, meeting in London this weekend, have agreed to a Global Tax Reform programme which will see more revenue being raised from corporations which operate across national boundaries.  

Finance Ministers have agreed the principles of a two Pillar global solution to tackle the tax challenges arising from an increasingly globalised and digital global economy.

Under Pillar One of the agreement, the largest and most profitable multinationals will be required to pay tax in the countries where they operate, not just where they have their headquarters.

The rules would apply to global firms with at least a 10% profit margin and would see 20% of any profit above the 10% margin reallocated and then subjected to tax in the countries they operate.

Under Pillar Two, the G7 also agreed to the principle of at least 15% global minimum corporation tax operated on a country by country basis, with the aim of cracking down on tax avoidance.  The agreement will now be discussed in further detail at the G20 Financial Ministers & Central Bank Governors meeting in July.

The new system is being touted by the UK government as one which will raise more tax revenue from large multinationals and help pay for public services in the UK.

The principle of taxing international corporations more fairly is one which cannot be opposed though whether that means that such corporations will in reality be paying their fair share remains to be seen.  The scope for clever accountants finding loopholes in the declaration of profit margins has yet to be tested.

The basis upon which the profits of these corporations are generated is also open to question, with minimum wages and poor working conditions often being key to maintaining profit margins.  Recent evidence of Amazon workers using bottles and bags, for fear of not meeting targets if they took toilet breaks, are just one example.

Amazon has been the particular focus for debate about unionisation recently.  No Amazon warehouses in Britain for example are unionised.  The Unite trade union has said that Amazon workers should be able to join a union of their choice “without fear”.  The comments follow a case in Alabama in the United States where workers at an Amazon warehouse voted against unionisation.

However, the RWDSU union, which organised the Alabama effort, accused Amazon of illegally interfering in the vote and lying about the implications of unionisation in mandatory staff meetings.

While Amazon denies the claims, it did hire anti-trade union consultants before the ballot.  In September 2020, Amazon had posted two job adverts for intelligence analysts to track labour “organising threats” in the US.  Spanish media reports have also claimed that Amazon had used private detectives to spy on a strike at a warehouse near Barcelona in 2019.

While Amazon had its most lucrative year ever in 2020, helped by a surge in online shopping during the pandemic, it also faced allegations over poor working conditions, as well strikes at warehouses in the US, Italy and Germany.

The Amazon UK workforce reached 40,000 last year and while there are individual trade union members amongst them, there are no recognised union collective bargaining rights at any Amazon workplaces.

Unite executive officer Sharon Graham has written to Amazon boss, billionaire Jeff Bezos, urging him to sign up to a declaration allowing workers the freedom to join a trade union, she wrote,

“Although we do have members in Amazon, workers in your company are not currently free to join a union without fear and without obstruction and propaganda being deployed against them.  So I am asking you to sign up to and abide by the declaration attached, which guarantees British and Irish workers the freedom to talk with and join unions without fear of retribution.”

There is no indication to date that Bezos has responded.

Amazon’s global profits have increased almost 200 per cent from 2019, and CEO Jeff Bezos added £51 billion to his personal wealth during the pandemic. A fulfilment centre employee at Bad Hersfeld, one of Amazon’s German sites, earning €10.40 per hour (£8.95), would have to have worked since around the beginning of the last ice age, approximately 2.5 million years ago, to make as much.

This particular plant does offer some hope however. In 2013 Bad Hersfeld became the first Amazon fulfilment centre in Germany to unionise. Two years later, it was the founding place of Amazon Workers International (AWI), an organisation that has members in 175 fulfilment centres worldwide.

The G7 global tax reform may be the issue which will grab the headlines this weekend but the struggle on the ground, in Amazon and a whole range of other corporations, for better pay, terms and conditions for the workers generating those profits continues.

The blame game

30th May 2021

Dominic Cummings – keen to point the finger

With 128,000 dead, the highest of any country in Europe, and a third wave bubbling up as the Indian variant of the COVID-19 virus becomes the dominant strain, the British political class is indulging in an undignified display of finger pointing in order to pass the blame.  The appearance of former Prime Ministerial adviser, Dominic Cummings, before a Commons Select Committee this week has been the source of most of the domestic news generated.  More will no doubt emerge as the Inquiry continues.

Cummings has been working hard to lay the blame for the inept handling of the pandemic in the UK at the door of anyone but himself.  Boris Johnson is, according to Cummings, unfit for office, hardly a news headline. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, is a serial liar who should have been sacked on at least 15 or 20 occasions, takes one to know one, is the phrase which springs to mind here.  

Cummings’ change of heart is disingenuous to say the least.  He was right at the heart of the decision making, at the start of the pandemic and for crucial months into it, before he became the scapegoat Johnson needed to try and cover his own ineptitude.

The joint inquiry of the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee has been established to consider what lessons can be drawn from the Government’s handling of the pandemic that could be applied now and in the future.

MPs are expected to focus on decision-making in the early months of the pandemic; the level of scientific evidence available to the Government; its border policy; and the effectiveness of its public health messaging and communications. The timing of lockdowns and other restrictions, procurement processes, and decisions about community testing and contact tracing are among other issues expected to be addressed.

Cummings’ responses to the Select Committee merely confirm what has been known for some time but the BBC and right wing media are at pains to cover up; that the government’s initial strategy was one of herd immunity, that there was not a functioning system to monitor infection in the early days of the pandemic, that indecision mean the lockdown came too late, that the test and trace arrangements once established were too little, too late.

That Johnson and his cohorts have blood on their hands for the handling of the pandemic is not in doubt but Cummings, in spite of being at the centre of decision making for key periods, is keen to distance himself from any culpability.

There is one point where Cummings touches upon the truth, when he states,

“There is no doubt that the prime minister made some very bad misjudgements and got some very serious things wrong. It’s also the case, there’s no doubt, that he was extremely badly let down by the whole system. And it was a system failure, of which I include myself in that as well. I also failed.”

The system to which Cummings refers is the decision making system within Whitehall, where the realities of the scale of the pandemic were not taken seriously until it was too late.  The real systemic failure is however, far greater.  The failure is a failure of capitalism itself.  The corruption and cronyism, which has characterised much of the handling of the pandemic, is endemic in a system which puts profit before people, which puts the needs of the economy before the interests of public health.   

The great tragedy in all of this, apart from the thousands of unnecessary deaths, is that large sections of the public see no alternative.  A midweek opinion poll saw the Tories lead rise six points to 44%, over a Labour Party whose performance throughout the pandemic was reflected in its abject showing in the local elections earlier in the month.

The irony is that it is the community driven vaccination programme which may save Johnson and his cronies, as the public seek to put the misery of lockdowns behind them and look to the future.   The Select Committee will do its work but how damning its will be of the government’s action remains to be seen.

The Official Opposition on the other hand remains largely supine, pleading that it cannot be too harsh on the government at a time of pandemic, as that may go against the spirit of national unity.  The fact is that Kier Starmer and the Labour Front Bench are being taken to the cleaners while Johnson and his cronies are, quite literally, getting away with murder.   

Stick with the data not the dates

23rd May 2021

Surge testing – increased across the UK

The race to extend vaccination to younger age groups across the UK, to stop the spread of the so called Indian variant of the COVID 19 virus, has stepped up a gear in the past week.  Six local authority areas are part of a surge testing programme, with mobile testing units and vaccination buses being provided, to increase take up of the vaccines.  More could follow as infection rates associated with the variant continue to increase.

Latest scientific evidence appears to suggest that both Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines are almost as effective against the Indian variant as against the currently more prevalent Kent variant.  This has led Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to pronounce that the government is still on target for its roadmap date of 21st June for lifting restrictions on work, travel and social distancing.

While the more widespread availability of vaccination is clearly necessary, the official optimism displayed by Hancock regarding the roadmap appears to fly in the face of the governments own mantra to follow the data, not the dates.

The Sunday Times estimated recently that the UK government’s failure to close the borders with India soon enough, because Boris Johnson did not want to offend Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, while negotiating a trade deal, allowed in at least 20,000 passengers from India to the UK.  This was at a time when other countries such as New Zealand and Hong Kong were completely stopping all flights from India.

The World Health Organization has identified the virus which originated in India, B.1.617, as a “variant of concern” because it is at least as transmissible as the Kent variant, potentially even more so.  This means it can spread through the unvaccinated population in particular more quickly and potentially accelerate out of control, hence the current race for vaccination.

With indoor social mixing having increased since the 17th May, with the doors to pubs, restaurants and performance venues being open, the conditions for viral spread are far greater than the recent lockdown period.  The potential for a significant third wave of the pandemic is a real possibility.

While public health issues should be front and centre in the midst of a pandemic the Tories, as ever, have one eye on their voter popularity and the wishes of their industry backers.  For many in the Tory camp opening up the economy, almost at any cost, is still the number one priority.  Popular pressure to allow foreign travel, fuelled by intense lobbying from the airline industry, is also pushing the government to be less rigorous than it should in relation to international travel.

The traffic light system currently in place makes little sense and appears to have little logic to it.  A much clearer position would be to ensure that international travel, both into and from the UK, is conditional upon proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR test.  In the short term the emphasis must be on travelling only for essential family or business reasons, rather than encouraging the mass take up of beach holidays.  

At the end of the day, the virus moves when infectious people move, and unless it is possible to be sure that those on the move are not infectious, the clear position should be that people stay put.  Avoiding a third wave and another national lockdown is in everyone’s interest, for economic reasons, but also to protect the mental health of many who have suffered social isolation and loneliness during the lockdown periods.

More important still however is the need to prevent further unnecessary pressure upon the NHS through hospitalisation and to reduce unnecessary deaths. This is especially the case as the vaccination programme is offering hope and, through the efforts of locally co-ordinated NHS, public health and community volunteering, is making a difference.  With the prospect of the finish line in sight the need to stay focussed on the data, not the dates, is more important than ever.  Otherwise, the perceived short term gain will not be worth the long term pain.

Existential threat to Palestine

15th May 2021

Palestinian youths contemplate the consequences of Israeli bombardment of Gaza

There is not an equivalence of blame, firepower or destruction in the current conflict in Gaza.  One of the world’s most powerful armed forces, the Israeli Defence Force, is bombarding Gaza City.  The city is the main centre, with a population of about 500,000 on a strip of land of 140 square miles which is home to 2m people.  Israel has been illegally occupying Gaza since 1967 and effectively blockading since 2008, controlling airspace and access by sea to prevent legitimate supplies of food, medicine and machinery.

Gaza City has been described as an open air prison.  While notionally governed by Hamas, as part of the Palestinian Authority, the extent to which Israel controls the lives of those in Gaza and the occupied West Bank amounts to the behaviour of an occupying force.

The outbreak of violence this week erupted when the Israelis implemented the further forced removal of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and effectively attacked the al-Aqsa mosque, which has been the centre of Islamic worship in Jerusalem for hundreds of years.

The Palestinian death toll has risen to 137, including eight killed and fifteen injured in an Israeli attack upon the al-Shati refugee camp, early on Saturday morning.

The Israeli regime continues to be deaf to calls for a ceasefire or any mediation.  With the Egyptians being prepared to broker a deal, the response of the Israeli Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, was trenchant, stating,

“Israel is not prepared for a ceasefire.  There is currently no end date for the operation.  Only when we can talk about complete quiet can we talk about calm.”

Response in the West has been typically biased, seeking to express concern over the scale of the Israeli ‘response’ while condemning Hamas rocket attacks into Israel.  Foreign Office Minister, James Cleverly, has described the Hamas rockets targeting Israel as “acts of terrorism”, suggesting that Israel has an absolute legitimate right of self defence.  Quite whether the UK government sees the same absolute legitimate right extending to the Palestinian population remains unstated.

The response of the United States has been to use its veto to block a unified United Nations Security Council statement on the situation, in spite of the warning from Tor Wennesland, the UN’s Middle East envoy that,

“The cost of war in Gaza is devastating and is being paid by ordinary people.  Stop the fire immediately.  We’re escalating towards a full scale war.”  

Attacks upon Arab-Israeli communities across Israel are escalating as right wing Jewish groups destroy Arab homes and businesses.  This represents a new dimension to the conflict.  While the Israeli regime has effectively operated a system of apartheid in relation to Arab-Israeli’s, an estimated 20% of the population, a degree of peaceful co-existence has prevailed, as long as Arabs do not challenge their status as second class citizens.   

This weekend marks the anniversary of the nakba, the Arab word for catastrophe, marking the day in 1948 when the birth of the Israeli state meant the dispossession of Palestinian land and 700,000 Palestinians had to flee into exile, in the surrounding states of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, is not known for backing down.  He is also in the middle of coalition negotiations following recent elections in Israel, seeking to form his fourth administration.  Fanning the flames of conflict and playing the ‘strongman’ card in the face of what he characterises as Palestinian violence may be, in Netanyahu’s view, his best chance of hanging onto power.

Netanyahu claims that the Israelis are targeting Hamas commanders and is trying to pass off the operation as a purely military exercise to combat ‘terrorism’.  The increasing death toll of innocent civilians, women and children, clearly non-combatants by any stretch, gives the lie to Netanyahu’s claims.

The Israeli regime regularly drums up both domestic and international support by demonising those who question its policies and flagrant disregard for international law and UN resolutions, as presenting an existential threat to Israel.  The real existential threat however, is not to the Western backed and massively armed state of Israel, it is to the largely defenceless Palestinian people themselves and their hopes for a state of their own.

Hartlepool makes a monkey out of Starmer

8th May 2021

Votes stack up for the Tories in Hartlepool

The town of Hartlepool has, up until now, mainly been famous for the story about the locals hanging a monkey during the Napoleonic wars, thinking it was a Frenchman.  The tale has become symbolic of Hartlepool’s insularity and relative isolation on the North East coast. 

The resounding by-election victory for the Tories this week did not come about because the people of Hartlepool thought local Labour candidate, Paul Williams, was a Frenchman, though his pro-EU views in a staunchly Brexit leaning town will not have helped.  They are part of a long term decline in allegiance to Labour in its heartland areas, a tide briefly stemmed in the 2015 – 2017 period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but one which appears to be accelerating under Kier Starmer.

Ironically Starmer is largely the architect of his own downfall in this respect.  When the political establishment took fright at Labour building a mass membership base from 2015 onwards, shattering Theresa May’s majority at the 2017 General Election, Starmer was quick to fall in behind the establishment view that the groundswell for change, which took Jeremy Corbyn as its figurehead, must be stopped.

Corbyn’s rapid rise had been built upon a recognition by many that the leadership of Labour had become politically synonymous with the Tories, offered little different by way of policy and even less difference for many in practice.  As a long standing back bencher, often defiant of the leadership and trenchant in his views, Corbyn did offer a genuine alternative.  The policies and programme which Corbyn and the team around him built reflected a genuine shift to the Left and the possibility of beginning to challenge some of the long held shibboleths of the political establishment.

Crucially, Labour under Corbyn was committed to honouring the outcome of the Brexit referendum, a position central to many in Labour’s working class base, who saw the EU much in the same way as they saw the respective Party leaderships, the privately educated classes booking the best seats on the gravy train.

By 2017 Labour was effectively being led by a Left wing populist committed to leaving the EU based upon the referendum outcome.  The fact that the establishment had failed to manipulate the Brexit outcome in its favour was bad enough, leaving the EU was never really part of the plan.  The prospect of Corbyn and his team being in charge of those negotiations was even more frightening.  Something had to be done, so the campaign to vilify Corbyn, question his patriotism, accuse him of links with terrorists, ramp up the anti-Semitism smear campaign, shifted through the gears with remarkable speed.

Targeting what were clearly a set of popular policies for change was not going to cut it.  Corbyn had to be attacked at his ethical base and to be subject to a barrage of character assassination.  If it was not called Operation No Smoke Without Fire, it could have been.

Starmer joined the fray by becoming a leading light in the so-called People’s Vote campaign, seeking to overturn the referendum result, pushing Labour into an indefensible position by the time of the 2019 General Election and, along with the widespread vilification of Corbyn in the establishment press and inside sections of the Labour Party, effectively brought about the cataclysmic result in that election.

The Tories on the other hand had learned some different lessons.  Seeking to ride the wave of popular desire for change, placing a demagogue with election success behind him in London Mayoral elections and as the figurehead of the Leave campaign, saw Boris Johnson’s rise to the leadership of the Tories.

Although a dyed in the wool Old Etonian and establishment figure, Johnson has enough nous to recognise that playing to the gallery is likely to garner as much support as forensically worked out policy positions.  Being a journalist by trade and media personality by default Johnson is also adept at working a crowd and projecting persona as the key election issue.  Like the fake ‘bloke down the pub’ populism that was the basis of stockbroker Nigel Farage’s appeal to sections of middle England, Johnson covers his privileged roots in talk of levelling up, praising the great people of the North East and looking forward to a pint when the pubs open.

Sidestepping the fact that his government has presided over thousands of unnecessary deaths from the COVID pandemic, Johnson points to the success of the vaccination programme and asks us to look towards a sunny future.  He deludes the people of Hartlepool and elsewhere that his government is committed to a vague notion termed ‘levelling up’, when it will do no such thing.  For Johnson that does not matter, if it wins him the next vote.

Meanwhile Starmer’s anonymity is resounding.  He makes no policy impact, projects no personality, offers nothing but a return to the politics of business as usual, rejected as failed by Labour supporters since 2015 but beloved of the political establishment, as presenting no threat to the status quo.

To get a measure of the depth of the abyss into which Labour is staring it need to look no further than Scotland.  The abandonment of the politics of supporting working class communities and challenging the Tories in Westminster has opened a fissure within which the mould of the Scottish National Party has been allowed to grow.  The blind alley politics of leaving the UK only to join the EU has gathered momentum as the only feasible alternative to Tory diktat for many Scottish voters.

The SNP have only been able to gain so much ground because Labour has presented little in the way of an alternative for Scottish working class voters.

Following Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool the hapless Shadow Communities Secretary, Steve Reed, was fed to Radio Four’s Today programme to account for Labour’s defeat.  Interviewer Nick Robinson’s Tory roots are well known but he barely had to break sweat to have Reed running in circles.  His only answer to what Labour had to do to turn things round was to quicken the pace of change, a euphemism for continuing to purge the Left and pursue the failed policies of the Labour right wing of old.

Kier Starmer has subsequently said Labour needs to move its HQ from London to show that it will be a Party for all of the people.  Really?  Will that make a difference?  Starmer has also said that Labour must listen to people and respond to their views.  Up to a point.  Labour needs to be in touch with its roots but as a political party cannot go forward being only committed to abdicating responsibility to the views of the moment, subject as they may be to change and manipulation.

Labour needs to set out a political programme based upon its assessment of the needs of the working class and then set out to argue the case for that programme.  It needs to be more rooted in local communities and be seen as the natural ally of those in need at all times, not just when an election is around the corner. 

Labour needs to recapture the territory it has surrendered since 2019 and project itself as the party of real change, the real alternative to sleaze, corruption and cronyism, the real option for the many, not the few.  Starmer may move the HQ and reshuffle his front bench but that will not be enough.