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Never again

3 April 2020

Stay on your feet: bench in Wanstead Park, east London, netted to prevent socialising. Photo Workers.

The people of Britain have had to face the Covid-19 epidemic with an emaciated NHS and an atrophied industrial infrastructure. So much for capitalism and the free market. Never again.

The media report deaths with the somewhat dehumanising note that the person dying had “underlying medical conditions”. But the NHS has long been in intensive care itself, riddled with underlying funding and staffing conditions, fighting for life under a mountain of debt (yesterday, apparently, transferred to the Department of Health).

For the past two Thursdays we have stood in our doorways and by open windows and clapped for the NHS. Better late than never. But we have allowed governments to bring it to its knees.


There are too few beds and too few staff. A deliberate policy of training fewer medical specialists than we need on the basis that we can import from other countries has, in the face of the crisis, rebounded on us. Never again.

‘We have no large vaccine-production facility left in this country.’

Here we are, the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world going by capitalism’s measure for size, GDP. Yet we have no large vaccine-production facility left in this country. PPE (only a couple of weeks ago most people had no idea what the initials stood for) is being made by sweatshops in Asia.

Millions are not working, “furloughed” as the new term puts it. Countless others are simply out of work. How did we let it come to this?

And all the while, capitalists with their eye for the main chance are taking it, hiking the price of ethanol needed for hand sanitiser, for example.

The gig economy has been exposed for what it is: insecure employment, at the mercy of every little shift of market forces. And when the economy plummets, you’re out. Never again.

A reckoning

Yes, there will have to be a reckoning. A public inquiry. Answers. We will learn that successive governments have failed us, as if we didn’t know that already. Maybe some heads will roll. If so, they will only be replaced by similar heads.

It is for the working class to do its own reckoning, to see even in the depths of this pandemic the seeds of its own salvation. Never mind government, workers across the land have been planning, organising and producing solutions. 

Three weeks ago, for example, the Crick Institute in London, the largest biomedical research laboratory in Europe, began converting itself into a testing lab for Covid-19. That huge undertaking is complete, and testing begins next week. The Crick had no instructions from government: it decided for itself.

Similar self-organisation can be found across Britain’s universities, from chemists at Imperial College making sanitiser gel for local pharmacies to Oxford University, which has put all its now-priceless PCR machines to testing use.


Witness, too, the innovations from Project Pit Lane, or the new virus test announced today, developed rapidly by MAP Sciences and Cantab Health. All the result of collaborations, all worker-led. 

‘Note the bravery and dedication of workers throughout the emergency and essential services.’

Note the bravery and dedication of workers throughout the emergency and essential services, including tens of thousands of retired workers. Note the medical students (themselves burdened with debt) flocking to the wards without waiting for terms and conditions to be agreed. They’re not wasting their breath pointing out the obvious. They’re getting on with what they can.

Productive forces

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, writing about the development of capitalism in the Communist Manifesto, said, “…what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour”.

Nearly two centuries on, we can see the gigantic productive forces slumbering in the lap of social labour when let free for just a short while from the chains of the market. And free, too, to disregard EU rules on state aid. We have a glimpse – a mere glimpse – of what the workers of Britain could do given a cause to work for and the freedom and independence to do it. 

During the Second World War production soared as workers applied themselves to the task in hand. Capitalism, competition, the market, took a back seat to enable the war to be won. Then it came back to re-establish its rule. We say, never again.