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Put people before profit — end lockdown only when safe

RICHARD BURGON MP argues that the government must only reopen schools and wider workplaces once it’s safe to do so

THE scandal around the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings will have left the public rightly believing that there’s one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everybody else.  

Clearly, the government has treated people as mugs. As a result of this rank hypocrisy over these events, there is now a real danger that the government’s conduct will undermine confidence in the public-health message at a critical time.

Government failures have already resulted in British citizens paying with one of the world’s highest death counts. More lives could be lost by a government-created breakdown in trust in its lockdown rules.

On schools, the government has already failed to persuade parents that the June 1 date for reopening was in the best interests of their children. It’s no wonder the government has lost the public argument on schools returning.

It hasn’t engaged with teaching staff sufficiently and hasn’t committed to such simple demands as ensuring that contact tracing and isolation are fully up and running before schools reopen.

If the Prime Minister thinks he faced a backlash by giving favoured status to his own adviser over lockdown, then he needs to brace himself for an even bigger one if he presses on with trying to re-open schools before it’s safe to do so.

The co-ordinated smearing of the teaching trade unions in the right-wing press is a result of their effectiveness in reflecting the concerns of parents and carers.

Had they been irrelevant or marginal to the debate, the government would have simply ignored them. Instead, teaching unions have expressed wider public fears that it simply isn’t safe to reopen schools at the moment.

They are right to do so. At the daily No.10 press conference, the government has been presenting slides showing the significant number of people still becoming infected with Coronavirus every week.

Is this really the time to be easing the lockdown and talking of schools returning? Of course not. Other countries such as South Korea and New Zealand had very few cases by the time they began to ease their restrictions.

To justify schools returning, we have had the sordid spectacle of ministers spinning the line that the reopening of schools is about child welfare and tackling educational disadvantage, with the poorest children less likely to be able to study effectively at home.

Given the damage caused to millions of children's lives by a decade of unnecessary austerity, that is a case of crocodile tears. This government has cut school budgets, with schools in deprived areas hit hard.

Headteachers have been forced to send begging letters to parents so schools get the essentials needed to keep running. Primary class sizes are the largest in the developed world and secondary class sizes have been rising at their fastest ever rate. Hundreds of youth centres and a thousand Sure Start centres have closed since 2010 and millions of children are living in poverty.

If the government wanted to address the educational inequality caused by this crisis, there are many things it could do in the very short term. Sorting out meals for every child in lockdown would be good, given how many children have been failed by the new supermarket voucher system.

It could deliver free books to all children’s houses. It could ensure that all children have a decent laptop to work from and all have access to the internet. It could fund special teaching sessions for all children who were not doing as well as expected before the crisis.

We all want schools and workplaces to be opened as quickly as possible. But only when it’s safe to do so. That’s clearly not now. Given the central role that fully functioning schools will play in unlocking the rest of the economy, it feels very much that profit is being put before people’s safety again.

Likewise, the attempt to force parliament to return looks like a cynical propaganda piece to trick the public into believing that everything is returning to normal. If the government gets its way MPs will converge from every corner of the country, move around parliament and then travel back to their constituencies — potentially spreading the virus.

The fact that we will have to meet our staff through video conferencing as they rightly won’t be working in Parliament and that committee meetings will still be held online shows that this is a charade.

At every step in this crisis – on the failure to lock down quickly enough, on PPE for workers, the care-homes scandal, inadequate testing and much more — the government has failed to act in the best way possible to save lives and protect our communities.

It is failing us again by prematurely pushing ahead with reckless plans to ease lockdown. It should drop those plans.

The simple question parents and workers will be asking themselves over the coming weeks is whether they can trust the government to put their interests first.

After recent events, many are concluding the answer is No, and that safety is being put at risk. They’re right. Our movement has a huge fight on its hands to ensure that the welfare of the people comes before profit.

 

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