By Conor Payne
On Friday, 21 January, Taoiseach Micheal Martin announced the sudden abandonment of most Covid restrictions. Limits on capacity and opening times in hospitality and other venues were lifted, as were the restrictions on numbers at sports events, concerts etc. The use of Covid passes domestically was ended and the limits on household gatherings were scrapped. The return to the workplace for those working from home is also to begin.
While Martin’s speech announcing the changes included a few caveats about continued dangers of the virus and the possibility of new restrictions in the future, in general his tone was triumphant, sentimental and painted a picture that the crisis had come to an end: “Spring is coming and I don’t know if I’ve ever looked forward to one as much as I’m looking forward to this one.”
After Martin’s speech, RTE News added to this tone by quickly following up with interviews with two hospitality bosses and the head of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), Danny McCoy. All of them welcomed the speech, while being careful to add that the government should continue its subsidies to employers.
Real dangers remain
Ordinary people desperately want to see the back of this pandemic, the devastation and death it has caused, as well as the resultant restrictions which have impeded our lives in so many ways. But what is the reality behind these words?
Clearly, there has been a significant decline in hospitalisations and in ICU admissions as a result of the milder nature of the Omicron variant and because of the hugely positive effects of the vaccines and boosters, and consequently there is a real basis to lessening restrictions. At the same time, there is still a global pandemic, the majority of the planet has not been vaccinated and as long as this continues the development and spread of new variants is virtually inevitable. There are no guarantees that future variants will continue to be milder, the opposite is possible also.
There are also sections of the population who are particularly vulnerable; the immuno-compromised, the elderly etc. Martin’s advice to those who feel anxiety about his rapid reopening was to ‘’be open about it, share it’’ but there was no acknowledgment that some have very good reason to feel anxious and no plan to protect the vulnerable. He also did not refer to the huge issues that still exist in schools, where an enormous number of children and young people are still unvaccinated and where basic measures to protect students and staff are still needed.
Health system still weak
Many will remember previous rushed reopenings and the consequent renewed surges of infection followed by new lockdowns. This has been the result of prioritising the interests of business – for example, the hospitality industry — and the needs of capitalist market economy over public health. It is also a result of the government’s unwillingness to take radical measures or to maintain the measures they do take for longer than they consider absolutely necessary. For example, after taking over the private hospitals and increasing ICU capacity, the government promptly returned them to their owners and began reducing capacity again. In the two years since this pandemic began, the government has not put in place the necessary infrastructure to deal with a possible resurgence of the virus; a properly resourced free public health services, an efficient test and trace system or even basic measures like mandatory air filtration in schools and offices.
All of this means that, while we can all hope that a real turning point in the pandemic has been reached, we haven’t any guarantee of this. A completely different approach is needed, which includes the following:
- Scrap the Vaccine Patents. There will be no end to the pandemic until everyone across the world has access to vaccination. All the patents should be scrapped and if the Irish government is serious about ending the pandemic, it will fight for this position internationally. This pandemic has underlined that basic medical care should not be at the mercy of profit seeking interests. The Pharmaceutical Industry should be taken into public ownership under democratic working class control and its vast apparatuses of production and research should be put at the service of human need not profit.
- For a real public health service, free at the point of use. Permanently nationalise the private hospitals. End two-tier care. Ireland’s billionaires added €18 billion to their wealth during the pandemic – an emergency tax on the super-rich could be used to bring funding and staffing up to the necessary levels to deal with a resurgent virus and to tackle the backlog that exists in all kinds of non-Covid related care.
- No forced return to the office. The government has announced a return to the office and simultaneously Leo Varadkar has announced a new ‘’right to request’’ home working. This will provide employers with 13 reasons to deny home working, and these are broad enough that virtually any employer will in reality have the right to refuse. Working from home has been a necessary public health measure and workers still have a right to demand guarantees in terms of health and safety before returning to the office. For others, especially women workers, a forced return to work will cause real stresses in terms of childcare and family responsibilities and many will dread the return to the daily commute. While recognising the dangers of remote working to the ability of workers to collectively organise, decisions about home working should not be in the hands of employers. Instead, these decisions must be made by workers themselves.
- Democratic control over health and safety in workplaces. The many workers who have continued to go into the workplace throughout this pandemic still have the right to health and safety and should demand whatever measures are necessary for their protection. From the meat factories to the hospitality industry, the clear lesson of this pandemic is that employers cannot be trusted to determine what is and isn’t safe for workers. Their focus is maximising profit. Workplace health and safety should be controlled by workers themselves. Workers, with the full backing of the trade union movement, must organise to assert this right.
- For Safe Schools. Many children and young people are still unvaccinated, schools often lack decent ventilation and space for social distancing. Deliberately, the government has denied schools a proper test and trace system. Students, teachers and all school staff have a right to safety in schools. All schools should have HEPA filters and ventilation systems. Free Antigen Tests and FPP2 masks in all school buildings. Covid has hugely disrupted education for the last three school years – the government should not impose a traditional leaving cert on 6th year students. Instead, funding for third-level education should be massively increased and college places and apprenticeships should be offered to all students.
- No PUP cuts. The introduction of a payment of (at first) €350 for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic went against the instincts of this right-wing government and they have continually cut it ever since. PUP has been closed to new applicants and is due to be finally phased out in early April. Employers have openly complained in the media that PUP is making workers reluctant to accept low paid and precarious work. Despite these attacks, PUP has established that it is possible to ensure that those out of work or unable to work do not live in poverty. Instead of phasing out PUP, €350 should be established as the basic social welfare payment for the unemployed, carers, the disabled, pensioners etc.
- The profit system must go. Throughout this pandemic, capitalist bosses have placed the interests of profit over the needs of workers, and general public health. In Ireland and around the world, governments which support the capitalist market system have backed them. The result has been two years of unnecessary death and social crises. At the same time we have seen that those who really do the essential work in society are not CEOs or investment bankers, but workers. We need a new democratic and socialist system, where the vast wealth and resources are taken from the hands of big business and the super-rich, brought under the democratic control and public ownership of working-class people and used for the needs of the many, not the privileges of the few.