Profit versus health in Northern Ireland

When the Covid-19 virus first broke in Northern Ireland, workers were once again told that ‘we are all in this together’. It is no more true today than during the 2008 bankers’ crisis where capitalist governments attempted to push the cost of the crisis onto our backs.

Working-class people are paying the price for capitalist governments who seek to prioritise profit over public health. North and South the authorities were refusing to follow the recommendations of the medical professionals, despite having asked for impartial advice.

The responses North and South are interwoven, with the statement by Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister in the Republic of Ireland), that the South didn’t attempt a strategy to contain and exclude the virus (as many countries in Australasia have done) due to the approach being taken in the North. Meanwhile, the positions adopted by the Northern Executive of the Stormont Assembly (the power-sharing local government) have been largely dictated by those pushed by the Conservative government in London.

The approach of putting profit before public health is not a new one. From the start, healthcare and other frontline workers were denied access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Indeed there was little to no health and safety response to outbreaks in meat processors or care homes before workers and their unions exposed the situation in the media.

The initial furlough arrangements adopted by the UK government were primarily designed to protect the interests of the boss class. While they benefited many full-time workers, those in more precarious contracts were excluded; in particular those on zero-hours contracts, short-term or casual workers and sections of the self-employed. As the furlough scheme ends, workers once again face increased uncertainty. Enrolment on the new scheme relies upon an increased business contribution – whatever comes we are facing large-scale redundancies.

Meanwhile, statutory sick supports are a meagre £95-85 a week, effectively leaving many workers with no good options if they need to self-isolate. Initial protections against rent foreclosures were primarily designed to protect landlords but now their cliff-edge removal threatens many tenants in difficulty with homelessness.

During the initial lockdown period, NHS workers were being clapped every Thursday by the Tories in London and by the same politicians in Northern Ireland who decoupled their pay from British levels, leaving it falling ever further behind and forcing health workers onto picket lines in December 2019. The rhetoric moved quickly from clapping to clamping, as NHS workers in Northern Ireland went from being hailed as national saviours to being faced with car parking charges at hospitals and refused an increase in pay.

The pandemic has been an opportunity for the Tories to transfer ever more public funding to private providers of medical services. Even the rules which prevent patients from seeing NHS consultants during the pandemic lockdown do not extend to the private sector. That means those ‘red-flagged’ for conditions like cancer are faced with interminable waits on the NHS or to short-circuit these by going private and be seen in days.

Tens of billions have been spent on contracts for PPE, testing and vaccine development but the outcome of all policies has been the centre of much controversy and criticism. One example is the outsourcing privateer corporation, Serco, which already operates many UK public services including prisons, immigration control centres, leisure facilities and car parks. Serco has been contracted to deliver the national Covid-19 contact testing service at a price tag exceeding £100 million pounds but has completely and abjectly failed.

In August it was revealed that of 10,000 employees Serco claimed to have, they had contacted only 2.4 persons each, on average. The Chief Executive of Serco is Rupert Soames, brother of former Tory minister Nicholas Soames, who is the grandson of former Tory prime minister Winston Churchill. They keep it in the family.

Schools and school transport services have been starved of money for years. They now are expected to find the money to install effective infection controls and open their doors without social distancing or adequate funding. The absence of overarching guidelines for schools has left many staff members inadequately protected and feeling exposed. The result has been a wave of outbreaks in schools, among teachers and bus drivers, and fears for asymptomatic transmission to parents and grandparents back home.

The situation in universities is the same. In Queens University Belfast, hundreds of students have now tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of term. The situation has forced a U-turn on the policy previously adopted. The University authorities no longer require students to rent accommodation in Belfast for lectures delivered remotely or even recorded for broadcast.

There is a clear desire to get as much rent revenue as possible from halls of residency and from the university’s extensive property portfolio also rented out to its own students. Outbreaks around Northern Ireland have followed Queen’s students who returned home for weekends to work in supermarkets and other service sector jobs. Once again, profit has trumped public health.

The Tory government has failed to devise a robust test and trace system to identify those Covid-positive. Indeed with hindsight, it appears it was never genuine about taking such an approach – no wonder, the NHS was the perfect vehicle to roll out a mass public health response but instead the role and the lucrative contracts were given to private sector charlatans.

If a robust system to test, trace, isolate, treat and support was put in place, Covid could have been kept out on these islands or greatly contained, just as it has elsewhere. Such a course would require adequate sick pay provision to support those showing symptoms and facing self-isolation, encouraging greater openness. Coupled with robust quarantine controls on those entering these islands, this could have allowed the disease to be shut down without the need for wider or more extensive social lockdowns.

Such an approach would have secured huge levels of public support and avoided any need for the use of repressive powers to force shutdowns. It could still be adopted even at this late stage although all governments appear set on pursuing their own variety of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy whatever the long-term cost.

Private profit has taken precedence over science. Options to shut out the virus have been missed. The result is a potential tidal wave of redundancies and the growth of the reserve army of labour. Bosses are seeking to exploit the opportunity to attack wages and conditions at a time when workers lack fighting workplace organisation to defend themselves. Meanwhile, everyone is being forced to stay in their houses under ever more harsh repressive laws, which have already been used against workers in struggle.

A generation of young people are facing losing a year of their lives unnecessarily. Mental health and domestic violence levels are ramping up and secondary causes of mortality are rapidly rising, for example untreated cancers or heart disease. The capitalist system of economics and the corporate governments in thrall to it, whether in Belfast, London or Dublin, offer workers nothing but suffering and exploitation.

Our lives or health matter little to those in power.  Capitalist politicians are focused on the business interests of the bosses. They have no interest in defending the public interest now any more than they wish to take action to avert the looming environmental disaster. We must organise for a socialist alternative to save ourselves and our planet – it is a case of socialism or barbarism.

Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, Militant Left (CWI Ireland)