Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabon on Unsplash

“If not now, when?” has been asked a lot recently in terms of ending the remaining COVID restrictions. For what it’s worth, although COVID-related hospitalisations and deaths are lower than they’ve been for a while, that is against the backdrop of truly horrific statistics that many of us have become immune to (no pun intended).

As I write, almost 50% of the population are still not fully vaccinated. There are huge numbers of people with long-term medical conditions which leave them vulnerable to COVID even after vaccination. We still don’t know much about long COVID: the long-term effects for sufferers; whether it can appear later down the line after undetected cases or very minimal symptoms; how many really have it.

I side with experts rather than our false freedom fighters and I think we should continue to be cautious. It is summer time and we can meet friends for drinks and meals in low-risk settings. We are allowed to meet with our family indoors. We are able to get away for breaks in the UK (and in many other countries if you’re desperate to travel abroad). I think we should continue to wear masks and continue to keep our distance. If we don’t, not only will people get sick, we could allow a vaccine-resistant variant to develop. And there is an economic argument to be made as well: people who test positive still need to isolate and with cases soaring, our economy will be affected by employees and potential customers having to stay at home.

If you won’t fight for people now, when will you?

I’m actually more interested in this question from the a left-wing perspective, after hearing those defending Keir Starmer claim, yet again, that it has been difficult for Labour to state their case during the pandemic. I think this is utterly nonsense. The pandemic has highlighted some of the major structural inequalities and weaknesses in our society so if Labour won’t fight now, when will they?

Over the last 16 months, people have come to realise that it’s not highly-paid CEOs and Directors who are vital to our society and indeed the economy, it’s the cleaners and carers; the nurses and teachers; the shop workers and drivers; the makers and fixers. This dawning realisation amongst the electorate should have fuelled a fire in the Labour party to fight for better pay and working conditions and to massively shrink the gap between those at the top, who make decisions every day which affect the livelihoods of the those at the bottom, and the very people who earn them their huge salaries.

Nurses and doctors have of course been at the forefront of our thoughts. The conditions in hospitals and other care settings has, at times, been something none of them would ever have expected to see. The lack of staff, lack of PPE, extremely long hours, death, risk, stress and emotional trauma has been horrific. And the government encourages us to clap for them while they offer a measly 1% pay rise after years and years of their pay falling in real terms. How strongly have Labour fought for a fair wage rise for NHS workers, or called for better pay and improved standards in care settings?

The public have become aware of the importance of many other workers too. Lots of us have been able to stay safe at home while people produce and deliver the things we need (and want). But those makers and deliverers are amongst the most vulnerable workers in the country. The big companies behind a large number of the products and services delivered to our doors have made enormous gains over the last 15 months. But the workers who have continued to stack shelves, serve customers, make food etc throughout the pandemic haven’t seen any of that. Delivery drivers in particular often have no job security; no paid sick leave or paid holidays; have to pay for fuel and the upkeep of their vehicles out of their own wages and often work very long hours just to make ends meet. How strongly have Labour fought against the gig economy, or ‘fire and rehire’?

The first pandemic to really affect the UK in 100 years has also provided a fairly unique insight into other inequalities that affect our health and wellbeing. While experts have been highlighting, for example, unequal health outcomes between disadvantaged people and more financially comfortable people for a long time, COVID-19 has been an acid test that no one should be allowed to ignore. Where people live, how they live, how they work and how their lives have been shaped by their economic status has defined how they have been affected by this pandemic.

More specifically, we can see that people need better housing. We can see that we need to address poor air quality for the whole country but especially in inner-city areas. ‘Broadband communism’ doesn’t look so daft now, as desk-based workers have grappled with connectivity issues while trying to work from home. People have realised how important green spaces are to our mental and physical health especially while it has been more difficult to get exercise and to get away on holiday.

So how strongly have Labour been calling for huge investment in public infrastructure?

The economic argument for investment

Let’s spare a thought for those who have been trying to suggest that the key to our economic survival – that being the most important thing of course – is to keep everything open despite the risks. Ok, here is a thought on that: the UK is massively dependent on the service sector after successive governments have helped other industries – including the actual production of real things – to collapse and never to recover. And during a pandemic when workers and potential customers get sick and can’t work, shop, buy drinks or food in cafes, pubs and restaurants, the economy will suffer and when business struggle or have to close down, redundancies are made, which leads to fewer people with the means to buy products and use services. It’s a downward spiral.

But if we invest in all the things which will help to prevent these crises and deal with them when they happen – and this will absolutely not be the last – then we will be protecting our economy too. We need to invest in NHS staffing, facilities and consumable resources. And to improve our physical and mental health, we need to invest in cleaning up our air to improve our respiratory health; in better pay and better working conditions; in better housing; in more and better green spaces and walking and cycling infrastructure. The alternative is like rummaging around in hot ashes for a little bit more coal to burn: maybe there’s a bit left – but it won’t last very long and you’ll keep getting your fingers burned in the process.

Post-pandemic consensus?

After the second world war, Attlee’s Labour party seized on the obvious fact that the country needed to be rebuilt, for the soldiers who had fought and their families, for the people who had kept the country going and for the economy to recover. The public agreed and the Labour government built over one million homes, the NHS, massively expanded the welfare state and brought industries providing essential public services into the public sector. This investment provided security and a solid base to for long term prosperity. It was so successful that the conservatives’ future successes relied on their acceptance of this new state-run society (although of course they never stopped trying to chip away at it).

Perhaps Keir Starmer’s Labour party are hoping that people will forget their lack of opposition during this period, where they’ve allowed the Tories to provide free cash for their friends and donors as the bodies pile high, livelihoods are destroyed and essential workers have been exploited. Perhaps they plan to offer a huge programme of bold and progressive policies to rebuild after the pandemic? You know, like the ones in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos that they’ve now binned.

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