By Conor Payne
The last days saw the development of an open split between the Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael / Green Party coalition government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) which has offered public health advice on the response to the pandemic. NPHET called for a national move to ‘Level 5’, similar to the full lockdown which took place earlier this year. The government rejected NPHET’s proposal, instead opting to move the entire state to ‘Level 3’, and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar launched an open attack on NPHET on the Claire Byrne Show on Monday night.
Clearly, we now face a developing emergency in terms of Covid-19 infections. Rates of infections are rising sharply throughout the country. There were 518 cases in the state on 5 October, 613 on 3 October and over 400 on four days last week. This means there is a real danger of the health service and ICU capacity being overwhelmed coming into the winter. The Irish health service as it stands cannot cope — it has one of the lowest ICU capacities in Europe.
This means that there is now a need for further urgent action to combat the spread of the virus. This comes at a time when people, while still being concerned about the virus, would have hoped instead for an easing of restrictions on their daily lives. Ordinary people have fought a battle against this virus for six months, but the government and Ireland’s capitalist establishment criminally squandered the opportunity afforded by the shutdown earlier in the year to build a real capacity to deal with the virus.
They haven’t created the capacity in the health service to deal with a rise in infections — in fact there is less ICU capacity than in April. They didn’t create a system of testing and tracing that matched up to what was needed. They conceded to business demands to reopen sections of the economy prematurely and turned a blind eye to the complete neglect of health and safety in the meat factories. Every radical measure they were forced to introduce to deal with the crisis, they reversed at the first opportunity, including handing back the private hospital to their big business owners. They have cut the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and ended the protections for renters at a time when infections are still rising.
At every stage, they have attempted to return to capitalist ‘’business as usual’’ — that is to put profit over people’s lives and health.
Any new shutdown measures will only work if part of an integrated plan to deal with the virus and defend the jobs and incomes of working people. This means investing to massively expand public health service capacity and an extensive programme of testing and tracing. It means a fight to demand the right of all workers to a healthy and safe workplace. That must include the right of workers to walk off the job without loss of pay or any victimisation, until the work conditions are properly changed. It also means the seizing of the massive wealth in Irish society and using it to guarantee workers are not made to pay the price of any economic shutdown. This starts by reversing the cuts to the PUP and reinstating the eviction ban.
Government covering for its own failures
Varadkar’s attack on NPHET was demagogic and cynical. He told us that they were ‘’all coming from medical or scientific or civil service backgrounds” and would not face the loss of their jobs or businesses and that ‘’poverty is a killer too’’. This despite the fact that it is his government which is cutting the supports for workers and tenants who are hit by this crisis.
The government instead decided to extend Level 3 restrictions throughout the state. They also promised significantly more enforcement of the restrictions by the Gardaí. This promise chimes with a general campaign in the last weeks to blame the public for the rise in infections. This has included a particular scapegoating of young people, with attacks on students and house parties etc. Obviously, nobody should be having house parties at this time. However, this extra enforcement will not be employed against the meat factory owners, or those who run the Direct Provision centres where safety has been flouted and which have been at the centre of so many outbreaks.
Shortsighted and conservative approach
Crucially, the government is trying to evade its own responsibility for this new crisis. The first shutdown successfully brought the number of cases down dramatically, but this opportunity was shamefully squandered. It should have been used to ramp up health service capacity and develop a quality system of testing and contact tracing. Instead, society was simply reopened without a serious plan. Why did they do this?
Incredibly, there is less ICU capacity now than there was during the early stage of the pandemic, reduced from 354 to 280. Ireland’s health service has one of the lowest ICU capacities in Europe per head of population, six times less than Germany. As of 6 October just 33 ICU beds were available across the state, with none available in 11 of 28 hospitals. This is the product of decades of neglect of the health service by successive right-wing governments.
At the same time, the testing and tracing system is not adequate and has been consistently behind the curve. Ireland only reached 100,000 weekly tests in September, whereas Denmark (with a similar population) reached that in June. Contact tracing is done from just eight centres across the country, with staff including volunteers, and unable to cope with the rising levels. Dr Ann Dee, a consultant in Public Health Medicine, says the eight centres are now “throwing in the towel” and giving up on doing “proper” contact tracing.
“We can’t cope with the volume of work,” she told the Irish Examiner. “There are not enough of us to deal with what is coming at us.”
A daily rate of 400 could mean thousands of contacts to track each day. More restrictions, without at the same time having the facilities for mass testing and tracing, will not deal with the threat of Covid-19. Mass testing, tracing and a huge increase in treatment capacity are clearly essential. Again, why is this government refusing to make the necessary investment?
The disgraceful truth is that this government is placing the demands of big business before the needs of public health. This was underlined most clearly at the meat factories, which were allowed to become the centres of major outbreaks despite months of warning. It also meant bowing to the demands of the business lobbies to reopen sections of the economy too fast and prematurely. In the summer, huge numbers of tourists were allowed into the country, including from countries such as the US where rates of infection were very high. In reality the proposal to go to Level 5 was a result of the criminal neglect of the government in not investing in the necessary testing, tracing and health capacity. And their rejection of that and opting for Level 3 was another example of them representing, first and foremost, business interests.
The approach to reopening of schools is also an important factor — reopening schools is important, but needed to be done safely. There are currently 36 ‘open clusters’ in schools but it’s unclear how many of the clusters in private households in reality originate in schools.
Schools are the single biggest occasion in the state where people are gathering at close quarters — huge numbers of children and young people every day are packed into classrooms which in many instances are too small to allow for real social distancing. Despite this, there is no automatic testing of everyone in a classroom if a student tests positive for Covid-19. Ideas to enable social distancing in school such as a ‘half in / half out system’, where only half of students are in school at any one time, were considered at the outset of the crisis but ultimately cast aside.
All of this reflects the short-sighted, right-wing and profit driven outlook of this government and Ireland’s capitalist establishment generally. Now they find themselves blindsided by a very foreseeable rise in infections.
Reject false choice between ‘economy’ and public health
Bigger sections of the establishment are now calling for a prioritisation of the functioning of the economy over the public health response to Covid-19, glossing over the reality that many more people will become infected and die if this approach is embraced. They say this is about maintaining people’s jobs, living standards and mental health — these crises are undoubtedly real, but we shouldn’t buy this rhetoric from a political establishment which won’t intervene on behalf of the Debenhams workers who are fighting for a decent redundancy and offers low paid ‘frontline workers’ a paltry 10c increase in the minimum wage. Their real agenda is to avoid any interruption of the flow of profits to big business.
The truth is that there is more than enough wealth in Irish society to maintain living standards even while taking the necessary measures to fight the virus. The problem, however, is that this wealth is in the wrong hands, i.e. the super-rich and big business, who are subsidised to the tune of billions via major tax breaks for the capitalist class. A report conducted by Oxfam in January of this year found that Ireland’s 17 billionaires had a staggering combined wealth of €40 billion, and shamefully the government recently handed over €13 billion, plus interest, to Apple corporation which it owed to the State. We reject this false choice between public health and the jobs and living standards of working people.
Defend health, jobs and wages
The voice of working class people must be heard in this crisis. Tackling the pandemic means ending the disgusting profiteering of those bosses who have scant regard for the welfare of their workforce, nor the public at large. We saw the threat they pose to our health in the meat factories where workers were denied sick pay and told to keep working while waiting for test results.
The trade union movement should now fight to organise all unorganised workers, and put the demand that workers should have democratic control over health and safety in all workplace, with regular independent inspections by trade union representatives. ASTI are currently balloting for industrial action to demand health and safety in our schools — action should take place wherever employers put workers’ health at risk.
Where the union leaders are failing, the striking Debenhams workers — now on strike for six months — are showing the way. They have shown it is possible to wage a serious fight against the bosses. All jobs should be defended, and workers should resist and strike to maintain employment. Likewise, with any wage cuts. Unlike the last time, workers must not pay the price for this economic crisis and the failure of the private sector and capitalist market. Job shedding companies should be brought into public ownership to save jobs as part of a democratically controlled state industrial investment plan to provide decent jobs delivering for the economic, social and environmental needs of society. The wealth, profits and economic resources of the super-rich should be used to respond to the health and economic effects of this pandemic.
Health service — drastically underfunded
It is outrageous that in the context of a pandemic this government remains committed to the existence of a two-tier health service. We must immediately move to a one-tier health service with the private hospitals brought back under public control without compensation.
This should be linked to an injection of funding and the hiring of staff to ensure that other essential healthcare can continue during this pandemic. This includes resources for mental health, a crisis which has been hugely exacerbated by the fears and isolation felt by many due to the social restrictions.
The need for system change
At every stage of this crisis, the pursuit of profit and the inequality of Irish society has impeded the effort to tackle the pandemic. To meet the needs of the situation we need socialist policies and an end to the rule of the profiteers. It means bringing the wealth and resources of the capitalist class into public ownership and planning the economy to ensure investment in healthcare, housing and our other needs.