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Editorial Workers’ Memorial Day: after 130,000 deaths, we cannot let the Tories off the hook

ON APRIL 28 last year, the Prime Minister led the nation in a minute’s silence for key workers who had died from coronavirus.

Both the government and the BBC were careful to avoid using the term Workers’ Memorial Day or mentioning the fact that trade unionists honour those who die or are injured through work on this date every year.

Ready enough to make a show of remembering the dead, the Tories would not risk drawing any attention to the other half of the labour movement’s April 28 message: that we must fight for the living.

That would have raised a host of awkward questions about the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), whether workers exposed to the virus had access to adequate sick pay to isolate, whether employers were actually being inspected or challenged on compliance with measures to ensure a Covid-safe workplace.

At the time just over 21,000 people in this country had died with Covid-19. A year and more than 100,000 additional deaths later, there is no national ceremony for the virus’s victims.

To hold one might raise other awkward questions. Why, on the Tories’ watch, has Britain, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, experienced one of the deadliest epidemics anywhere in the world — with 1,902 deaths per million people (compared to 5.29 in New Zealand, 3.47 in China, 0.36 in Vietnam?)

Yet they are questions Boris Johnson may struggle to avoid now Tory-leaning newspapers have reported him saying he would rather “let the bodies pile high” rather than authorise another lockdown last autumn.

At least if we can move beyond the “he said, he said” drama staged by the mass media, itself the fallout from factional infighting among equally guilty men.

Whether Johnson said he was happy to let the bodies pile high is surely less important than the fact that he did let them. So did the whole of his government.

It did so by handing responsibility for a test-and-trace system, absolutely essential to containing the virus’s spread and stopping its resurgence after the first lockdown, to utterly unqualified Tory cronies who then outsourced it to grasping profiteers with no relevant experience — one of which, Serco, actually had recent convictions for defrauding the public purse.

It did so by imposing only partial lockdowns, excluding schools here, non-essential work there, leaving gaping holes in its suppression strategy.

It inherited a Health and Safety Executive too starved of funds to police workplace safety and a Department of Health that had not bothered to replenish PPE stores despite finding in its own 2016 drill that stocks would rapidly run out: but today’s ministers sat in the governments responsible and have doubled down on their legacy.

One reason so many in Britain have died is that a poorly unionised workforce, often lacking job security and badly paid, is exposed to greater risks on the job and such workers may be powerless to abide by public health advice without risking the roof over their head or the food on their table.

Another is our hollowed-out public services riddled with outsourcing, and a corporate-captured state serving as a magic money tree for a privileged circle of profiteering crooks.

As lockdown eases and vaccinations rise, Tories hope we will not remember the dead but simply celebrate the end of the nightmare.

They encourage this even as their refusal to support an international ban on Covid treatment patents contributes to the horror engulfing India and Brazil and raises the likelihood that new mutations will be back to haunt us.

We must not let them off the hook. Tens of thousands are dead because the political system prioritises profit over human life.

The case for fundamental change has been made. A movement capable of delivering it has to be built. This is the task facing every trade unionist and socialist.

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