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Labour Should Be Exposing Boris Johnson’s Failure Over Coronavirus

Boris Johnson's government has responded feebly to coronavirus, refusing to learn the lessons of other countries. Labour ought to be hammering the Tories for their inaction — and explaining why years of austerity are hobbling the NHS's response.

Labour leadership candidates (L-R) Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jim McMahon (standing in for Sir Kier Starmer), Lisa Nandy, and Emily Thornberry during the Labour leadership hustings in Nottingham, England. (Jacob King / Getty Images)

Coronavirus is Britain’s most significant crisis since 2008. It could develop into the most serious one since the Second World War. This a moment when decisive leadership matters. Yet aside from a carefully worded statement by the outgoing Jeremy Corbyn, this has unfortunately been lacking from the Labour Party.

Despite the death toll doubling to twenty-one this morning, Sir Keir Starmer’s latest email doesn’t even mention coronavirus. In fact, he hasn’t tweeted about the situation in three days — only referencing it in the context of the budget. Rebecca Long-Bailey has echoed union calls for improved sick pay and workers’ protection, but nothing more. Lisa Nandy is arguing for a “Marshall Plan” for coronavirus without offering much by way of specifics as to what that would mean. None of the leadership candidates could be said to be challenging the government’s woefully inadequate response to coronavirus effectively.

But they are not even the worst Labour has to offer — special attention must be given to Sadiq Khan, whose own mayoral race has now been postponed. After defending the government’s response to the outbreak from criticisms by former Tory Rory Stewart (who, depressingly, has offered a far more serious and humane response to the crisis than any major Labour figure), he went out of his way to praise Boris Johnson, saying that he “can’t fault” him, and encouraged the public to give him credit for engaging in basic democratic accountability such as not restricting questions only to “his mates.”

Compare this to Bill de Blasio — Khan’s equivalent in New York, and hardly a radical leftist — who is gearing up to ban all evictions for the duration of the outbreak. About the boldest Labour has gotten in this crisis has been a demand for requisitioning private hospital beds, a worthwhile step without doubt but not enough for the scale of the challenge we face.

The coronavirus crisis requires a far more effective opposition than Labour is currently providing. Britain has one of the worst rates of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of any developed nation, offering a mere £94 a week. In the European Union, we are behind only Malta. If you lived in Sweden, you’d get £230 per week. In Germany and Austria, the rate is £287. Even in Spain, where the average wage is about 20 percent lower than in the UK, the sick pay is £121. Britain’s meager SSP offering also comes with strings attached and a wide range of loopholes for employers.

This is unacceptable, and it’s time for Labour to demand that the government urgently introduces a rate of sick pay that would match thirty-five or forty hours of weekly work on the Real Living Wage of £9.30 an hour across the UK and £10.75 in London. But it can’t stop there. Huge numbers of self-employed people, precarious workers, and soon the unemployed will be facing grim economic circumstances without any idea how they will manage their bills. Labour should call for a suspension of rent payments, mortgages, and all other utility costs until this emergency is over.

Britain is one of just four EU countries where the self-employed are not eligible for any sick pay, which means that around 15 percent of our workforce has no guaranteed cover whatsoever and will have to rely on the notoriously harsh universal credit system in the coming days and weeks. Many more workers facing compulsory redundancy in the airline industry or hospitality will follow them.

The government has refused to increase universal credit payments, or even shorten the five-week delay in place before people receive their payments. Instead, they have offered a loan to cover bills in the meantime. Simply adding to the debt burden placed on families who already do not know when they will be able to work again is not enough. Labour should back the Trussell Trust’s demand: “Universal credit first payments must be made available immediately on a non-repayable basis for anyone needing to claim.”

But they should go further too. The basic universal credit allowance for joint claimants over twenty-five is £498.89. This was too little before this crisis — it will certainly be too little when a deluge of first self-employed workers and then newly unemployed ones start signing on. The net average monthly salary in the UK as a whole is £2,085 per person. The benefits cap for a couple that lives in London is £1,917. In other words, many average-wage families with two self-employed parents could soon find their incomes halved. To meet this challenge, Labour should call for the benefits cap to be lifted — and for significant increases in basic universal credit rates.

It’s also time for Labour to reignite its demand for a National Care Service. Coronavirus will disproportionately impact vulnerable groups needing social care like the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. As Disability Rights UK pointed out, “despite consensus that social care is dramatically under-funded, the budget was silent on this national priority.” Many families are now frightened to visit elderly relatives in case they expose them to the virus. Dozens of care homes are closing their doors to visitors.

The entire social care system will come under extraordinary pressure, with a handful of illnesses among staff potentially causing chaos. It is no longer good enough that Britain ranks tenth out of twelve OECD countries for its spending on social care. Labour should insist on a comprehensive, well-funded National Care Service for the elderly, the disabled, and the sick, and that it be introduced by the government as soon as possible so that the vulnerable can be protected.

The party should also use this moment to remind the country how the last crisis was used to justify a decade of austerity cuts that have savaged our public services. Back then we were told to “leave politics at the door” in the national interest. We can’t fall for that again. Outsourcing has allowed vital national infrastructure to be undermined by corporate interests. Last week, workers employed by the ISS outsourcing giant at Lewisham Hospital — the first hospital in London to treat a coronavirus patient — were forced to walk out on an unofficial strike because their bosses hadn’t paid their wages for days on end.

This is unacceptable, but not an exception. While the New York subway system begins an intensive deep cleaning process every three days, the mayor of London has refused to do the same on the London Underground — despite heavy pressure from the RMT union. Why? Because cleaning on the tube has been outsourced, and there is no incentive for the company to do it. It’s time for decisions like this to be taken out of the hands of profiteers in the public interest.

Aside from these demands, the party also has hundreds of thousands of members who are as scared and brave as the communities they’re embedded in. In many areas, the organizational structure of the party could be used to provide aid, assistance, and support to older or more vulnerable members of the community whom the state has failed.

In previously perilous times, there have been precedents for this sort of action. During the Blitz, our rulers wanted ordinary Londoners to greet a stream of bombs and parachuted mines with singsongs, whistling, and stoicism. The labor movement refused to accept this. We fought so that workers could stay in the bomb shelters of high-end hotels, and used crowbars to break into Underground stations, saving countless lives in the process.

More recently, after the corporate inferno of Grenfell Tower, Jeremy Corbyn called for the empty homes of the superrich to be seized by survivors with nowhere else to go. Similar choices face us now. If hospital admissions really do skyrocket and we need buildings, are we going to use the spare capacity of empty office blocks in cities like London if required? Or will we say investors’ rights trump society’s needs? These questions are coming down the line.

Labour must refuse to accept that ordinary people’s lives should come after the whims of the market, and we have to say — and act — within that principle. The response of our movement to this crisis should be rooted in a defense of human dignity. No one should have to make the choice between putting food on the table or acting in the interests of public health. Nor should they be penalized financially, or driven to destitution, for making a conscientious choice. We cannot lag behind the rest of the developed world in funding and support for the most vulnerable.

This is a time for solidarity and an economy that puts social needs first. Only Labour can provide that — but it needs to speak up now.