the troughers

UK corporations scramble for coronavirus bailout funds
Paul Bond, WSWS, Apr 4 2020

The financial measures of governments globally in response to the coronavirus pandemic are laying bare class divisions under capitalism. In Britain, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on Mar 17 that a £350b bailout would be made available for businesses. The bailout is an unprecedented financial handout to UK corporations, conducted without even the rubber stamp of a parliamentary vote. Virgin Atlantic was quick to demand a £7.5b bailout of the British aviation industry, while simultaneously demanding that its workforce agree to eight weeks “unpaid leave.” The company also offered all employees “voluntary redundancy.” Owner and tax exile, ‘Sir’ Richard Branson, whose personal worth is $3.8b, made a show of putting $250m into the company to keep it afloat. His aim is to maintain operations under conditions in which it has virtually no customers, while he awaits a vast transfer of public resources into the company’s coffers. It has been reported that Branson will claim £500m from the bailout fund. The firm staying afloat is vital for the continued profitability of other corporations and entities. Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Heathrow Airport have all lobbied Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in support of Virgin’s bailout application. EasyJet owner ‘Sir’ Stelios Haji-Ioannou, whose personal wealth is $1.7b, is also set to receive government loans. ‘Sir’ Stelios has instructed his pilots and cabin crew to take two months’ unpaid leave. He has also called on the company’s board to cancel an order for new aircraft and to fire staff just days after receiving his personal dividend of nearly £60m. Multi-millionaire Tim Martin, chairman of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, recently alerted his 40,000 staff that they would not be paid because there was no money coming in, and contemptuously said they should look for work at the Tesco supermarket conglomerate. He told suppliers they would not be paid for goods already delivered until the pubs reopened. JD Wetherspoon had a turnover of £1.8b and reported pre-tax profits of £102.5m last year. It should also be recalled that Martin fought against calls for social distancing and the closure of restaurants as the pandemic was developing, absurdly claiming:

There’s hardly been any transmission of the virus within pubs.

Sunak’s initial bailout of these corporations pledged £330b in loans, equivalent to 15% of the UK’s annual GDP, to be made available to businesses at “attractive rates.” He insisted that it could be extended with “unlimited lending capacity” if required. A further £20b was pledged as tax breaks, cash grants and compensation for companies required to pay statutory sick pay. The corporations are covered by the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, a scheme allowing companies to sell commercial paper, unsecured short-term debt that can be held for up to 12 months, to the Bank of England. CCFF was criticised because companies needed to be defined as investment grade by a rating agency in order to be eligible. Rating agency Fitch noted that only just over 100 UK companies qualified. The government subsequently allowed lending banks to make their own assessment of a company’s credit worthiness. This was ostensibly to allow the inclusion of medium-sized concerns, but the majority are still unlikely to meet the Bank of England’s criteria, which would depend on their financial health at the beginning of March. The priorities were clear. Only days later did Sunak issue any wage subsidy measures. This was originally slated for the following week but had to be brought forward because of business anxiety over the spiralling economic crisis and mounting concerns by millions of workers facing unemployment. Former Business Secretary Greg Clark MP warned:

Many businesses were rejecting the idea of government-backed loans because they had “no idea when they would be able to pay back the debt they would incur.

Workers were just the pawns in this negotiation between business and the Tories. Senior Tories told the Times that Sunak’s initial measures were “simply not going to be enough.” Clark said businesses could see “no choice but to lay off workers now.” Their concerns were not over the fate of workers, but the bailout of corporations. Sunak announced that companies furloughing workers would be able to claim up to 80% of their wages in a job retention scheme, to a maximum of £2.5k/month for the initial period of three months. Only later were provisions made for the self-employed and gig economy workers, who now make up 15% of the labour market, 5.75 million workers. Only a fraction of the Sunak bailout will go towards paying wages. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, economist Julian Jessop described the cost of the scheme as “bearable.” An average wage subsidy of £1.5k/month for three months would cost around £4.5b per million jobs covered. He posited a total up-front cost of up to £40b, around 2% of annual national income, demonstrating just how little relatively has been reserved for paying workers. Even after this move, some companies continued laying workers off. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay issued redundancy notices to more than 500 workers in his restaurants. The latest billionaire to demand public money is Philip Green, head of fashion retailer Arcadia. Arcadia shut its 550 shops two weeks ago and is demanding wages support for 14,500 of its 16,000 staff. Arcadia is owned by Green’s wife Tina, a tax exile based in Monaco. Her salary in 2017 was £25 million. Green became a symbol of venality and greed following his role in the systematic plunder of his BHS retail chain and its pension scheme before its final collapse, with the loss of 11,000 jobs. On Tuesday, the Bank of England reached agreement with Britain’s largest banks that they would temporarily halt shareholder pay-outs and share buybacks for 2019 throughout 2020. This was intended to hand the lenders an additional £8b in reserve for increased lending demands from corporations during the pandemic. Such is the economic volatility that the move triggered a collapse in banking shares Wednesday, as part of broader chaos on the market. Many of these supposedly cancelled bonuses had already been paid out before the agreement was reached. Opening of the cash spigot for big business is fuelling anger among millions. Nearly 70,000 people have signed an online petition demanding “Tax dodging Virgin—no bailout!” The petition’s author wrote:

Branson has avoided paying taxes in our country. He has taken vast amounts of money from the railways and bled the NHS dry. He has a huge amount of personal wealth, and should not be subsidised by our nation.

The raid on the public purse for big business, just as was the case after the 2008/09 bailout of the banks, will be paid for by working people. The last act in the pathetic exit of nominally left party leader Jeremy Corbyn was to endorse the bailout without even his customary whimper. The Trades Union Congress, who were involved in lengthy discussions with big-business representatives to put a case to the government before Sunak’s budget, was effusive in its praise. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, who sits on the Bank of England’s court of directors, described the jobs retention scheme as a “breakthrough.” Praising Sunak’s “real leadership,” she stated she was “glad he’s listened to the unions.”

Working-class Londoners risk their lives fighting COVID-19 as the city’s billionaires decamp
Michael Barnes, WSWS, Apr 4 2020

London is to billionaires what the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan. It is their natural habitat.
— Boris Johnson, Conservative Party Mayor of London, 2014

I welcome the fact that we have got 140+ billionaires in London. That’s a good thing. I welcome the fact that there are more than 400,000 millionaires. That’s a good thing.
— Sadiq Khan, Labour Party Mayor of London, 2016

London, the centre of grotesque inequality in Britain before the COVID-19 pandemic, has inevitably become an epicentre of the pandemic within the UK. The city is a concentrated example of the class divisions cleaving through the whole of British society. On the evenings of Mar 26 and Apr 2, as millions of Londoners joined a country-wide applause for the self-sacrifice of grossly under-equipped NHS staff, where were the super-rich that Johnson and Khan lauded as essential to society’s well-being? While the Tory government bailed out big business to the tune of £380b, the multi-millionaires and billionaires escaped to secluded islands and safe havens in private jets, climbed aboard luxury yachts for extended vacations, settled into their country retreats, or bunkered down in their mansions and luxury apartments. A few weeks ago, private jet booking service PrivateFly said it saw a huge increase in bookings as clients evacuated back to the UK from disease-hit countries. Others were arranging private flights out of Britain to avoid planned lockdowns. Those poorer multi-millionaires who could not afford private jets were using concierge company Quintessentially. The company’s spokesperson said:

Members who are travelling commercially are choosing to book elite services at airports, not your typical first-class lounge. For example, private terminals where guests are greeted and given their own suite. Check-in, customs and security are all done privately, and guests are then taken to the doors of the aircraft. Members can request for the jetty to be cleared so they minimise the interactions with other passengers on their way to their seat.

Luxury retail agency Quintessentially Estates said that early in the crisis their phones were hot with inquiries about exclusive retreats:

These include Scottish castles, mansions with bunkers, Cotswolds manor houses with moats, uninhabited Caribbean islands to buy, superyachts for a long charter and private jets to get clients home from abroad without their having to go near international airports.

The London rich who could not escape buy designer face masks and attend eye-wateringly expensive Harley Street practices for private testing and expensive intravenous vitamin infusions. Others have moved to country homes or leased them for up to £50k/month, according to the Daily Mail. As reports began to emerge that London doctors, hospital workers, bus workers and a 13-year-old child were dying of COVID-19 across the capital in horrific circumstances, the elite had other concerns. One London financier is reported by Forbes to have complained that the lockdown was preventing her showing off her expensive jewellery. She said:

I’m just not sure when my next ball will be!

While the super-rich complain of being bored in their gated mansions, masses of workers in London have lost their jobs or are forced to work in unsafe conditions with next to no protection from the virus. Every journey on London Underground has turned into a nightmare. Poorly paid workers wrap scarfs and handkerchiefs around their faces and crowd into train carriages. Labour Party Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has closed 40 out of 265 tube stations due to the numbers of staff self-isolating at home with COVID-19 symptoms because no serious safety measures were put in place. Among those travelling on packed transport systems are tens of thousands of the capital’s construction workers, many on their way to build high-value apartments and houses. Both the Tory government and Mayor Khan have made deliberately vague statements about what constitutes “essential work,” allowing construction firms to decide for themselves. Twitter has been rife with the barbed comments of construction workers questioning why the luxury flats they must build were considered “essential.” Another thriving industry is private tutoring. Tutors International, which provides elite tutoring services, says it has seen “a massive upswing in requests” since the COVID-19 outbreak. While the super-rich carry on with their luxurious lifestyles as normal, the situation facing the working class is indicated by the Nightingale field hospital, officially opened on Friday in east London. The effort put in by workers to construct a facility from scratch has been tremendous. But the need for a 4,000-bed facility at such short notice highlights the gutting of the NHS in London, leaving the population perilously exposed to the pandemic. Two new mortuaries, one in Newham and the other in Hillingdon, are also being built. In the words of one health chief, a “tsunami” of cases is set to overwhelm London’s hospitals. On Mar 19, well in advance of the expected peak of cases, Northwick Park hospital in north-west London declared a critical incident after it ran out of ventilator capacity. One senior figure told the Health Service Journal:

Given we’re in the low foothills of this virus, this is fucking petrifying

On Thursday, it was reported that one London hospital had nearly run out of oxygen over the weekend. NHS trusts in England have been given an urgent warning to limit the number of people on mechanical ventilators and continuous positive airway pressure machines. Health chiefs are warning that an already overstretched London Ambulance Service will be unable to cope with the hundreds of extra patients needing hospital admission. Vehicles used to transport patients to non-urgent visits are being commandeered, but do not have the same medical equipment as an ambulance. These conditions are putting London’s healthcare workers in danger. The lack of personal protective equipment and testing available to medical staff has become a national scandal. On Sunday, Thomas Harvey, a healthcare assistant at Goodmayes Hospital, London, died after treating a patient with COVID-19 with only gloves for protection. Across the capital, some hospital trusts have staff self-isolation rates of between 30% and 50%. This Monday, a nurse in her 20s at King’s College Hospital, where eight COVID-19 deaths have occurred, committed suicide. Although the investigation into her death has drawn no conclusions, the experience in Italy where several health workers have committed suicide during the pandemic points to a similar trend beginning in the UK. Shortages are forcing medical staff to work incredibly long, harrowing shifts and make the traumatic decision to deny treatment to the most vulnerable. The WSWS reported on the crisis at Kings College Hospital Trust in January this year:

King’s hospital has a vacancy rate of 19.4% for nursing posts in cancer care, 15.4% in children’s care and 12% in operating theatres. At the Princess Royal hospital managed by the King’s Trust, 26.3% of nursing posts in acute and emergency care and 12.4% in the children’s care unit are vacant.

The terrible personal consequences of such sharp social inequalities were summed up last weekend by the contrasting fates of Prince Charles, tested and cared for while presenting only mild symptoms of the disease, and Kayla Williams, a 36-year-old mother of three from Peckham, south London. Williams, the wife of Fabian, a refuse worker, died in her flat of suspected COVID-19 a day after calling 999 and being told to look after herself at home. Fabian said:

I called 999 because my wife was breathless, she was vomiting, and she had pains in her stomach. As I was talking to them, she was getting worse and they told me to put her on the floor and to make her body flat. The paramedic told me the hospital won’t take her, she is not a priority.

Williams was dead the next day. Twitter erupted as Londoners contrasted the brutal inequality in treatment between Kayla and Britain’s royalty. The lesson has been burned into popular consciousness that we are not “all in this together,” as the government claims. There is the pandemic experienced as an inconvenience by the super-rich, and the pandemic experienced as a catastrophe by the working class. Only a revolutionary overturn can protect the population from the virus and remove from society the cancerous growth of multimillion and billion-pound wealth threatening its very existence.

Elderly will be left to die as coronavirus plunges care sector into crisis
Stephen Alexander, WSWS, Apr 4 2020

As Britain recorded its largest increase in deaths from coronavirus in a single day, 684, taking the grim toll to over 3,000, it is the elderly who are most at risk from the pandemic. While more than half of all hospital deaths in England were among those aged 80 and over, the number of those dying in care homes now exceeds 600. The entire care sector faces a substantial spike in deaths, with little or no contingency measures in place to prevent mass contagion. Evidence has now emerged that suggests that elderly residents in care and nursing homes are possibly being pressured into agreeing to “do not resuscitate” notices. The BBC reports seeing a document circulated by the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group, which covers 35 general practices and 98 residential or nursing homes, directing all homes to “check they have resuscitation orders on every patient.” In addition, elderly residents infected with COVID-19 could be refused admission to hospital, with the document stating:

We may therefore recommend that in the event of coronavirus infection, hospital admission is undesirable.

Throughout the country, there are shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and no adequate testing and quarantine protocols exist to protect vulnerable elderly residents and the safety of health-care workers. The Office for National Statistics recently began publishing data on coronavirus-related deaths occurring outside hospitals. It is now estimated that up to a fifth of all COVID-19 deaths in the UK have occurred in care homes, hospices, and individual households. These deaths remain under-reported, as many are registered as resulting from chest infections or pneumonia. A 95-year-old man recently died after being infected by COVID-19 at the Oaklands Nursing Home in Hove, East Sussex. He tested positive along with two other residents. Several others are critically ill, and a member of staff has been admitted to intensive care. 15 out of 20 residents at the home have developed symptoms. Two people with suspected COVID-19 infections have died at Oak Springs care facility in Liverpool. Three other residents are in hospital, with 48 of the remaining 66 residents as well as 50 staff presenting symptoms.

Similar reports are emerging daily across the country, with the UK trailing Italy and Spain, the deadliest pandemic hotspots in Europe, by just a few weeks. In those countries, care homes have been crippled by mass contagion, double-digit deaths and staffing shortages. Some elderly residents in northern Italy and Madrid were left without care and food for days due to staff absences and impossible working conditions. The military, which belatedly intervened to relieve care homes, found 23 dead in one care home in the Spanish capital, including two nuns who had been providing care. France is also now reporting runaway infections and deaths in care facilities. MHA, the UK’s largest charitable care provider, told the Guardian that care services are already approaching a “breaking point.” More than one in ten of MHA’s several thousand strong workforce at its 220 facilities are unable to work due to self-isolating related to suspected infections, underlying health conditions and needing to care for vulnerable relatives. Care organisations and local authorities have appealed for volunteers. Many care facilities are reporting acute shortages of hand sanitiser, eye protection, masks and gloves. The Daily Record reported that staff at the Cumbrae Lodge Care Home in Ayrshire, Scotland, where one patient has already died after contracting COVID-19, are working without PPE. The care home is owned by Four Seasons, one of the largest and most profitable private care providers in the UK. Other care homes have been issued with face masks that have passed their use-by date by four years. Most residential homes are neither built nor equipped to carry out the effective isolation of infected residents. UK government PPE and isolation protocols for care homes refer only to symptomatic residents, advising otherwise:

No personal protective equipment is required above and beyond normal good hygiene practices.

Yet it has been known for months that COVID-19 is highly infectious in the week prior to the appearance of symptoms as well as in asymptomatic carriers. Sam Monaghan, chief executive of MHA, told the Guardian:

Our people are also working day and night with those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus and we are yet to be included in the testing that is being rolled out for the NHS.

One MHA worker said:

We are risking our lives. It makes us feel like we are cannon fodder.

Instead of providing safe working conditions and care services for the elderly, disabled and vulnerable, Boris Johnson’s government has obliterated care standards as part of the Coronavirus Act. The bill, which withdraws key duties under the Care Act, was passed as emergency legislation with next to no debate. The provision of essential care for the elderly has suffered from years of austerity, cuts in services and shifting the burden from the state onto the individual. According to the Ferret, Glasgow’s Health and Social Care Partnership has cut home visits completely for some elderly, sick and disabled people who depend on several home visits per day to help them get dressed, eat and take medication. The organization now only delivers “critical care.” Dr Sally Witcher, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, warned:

It’s not necessarily the virus that is going to kill people. It’s going to be the absolute failure to provide people with the support they need.

Amid a surge in coronavirus admissions, the Johnson government has finally made available a paltry £3b to the care sector, a mere 1% of the £300b sum handed over directly to the banks and big business in response to the pandemic, to support the NHS in discharging hospital patients to care homes. Several care facilities have publicly refused to accept patients from hospitals, with one manager describing the policy as “madness,” stating that it would expose entire care homes to possible infection. The dire situation in care has been prepared over decades by successive Conservative and Labour governments. The elderly are forced to sell their homes or run down life savings to fund their own care. Large swathes of the sector have been handed over to private operators, with just 8% of the care sector remaining under the control of local government. A report published last year by the Centre for Health and Public Interest revealed that the largest private care providers, including HC-One, Four Seasons Health Care, Barchester Healthcare and Care UK, which control around 900 care homes, pocket roughly £1.5b in profits from an annual revenue of £15b. Many of these companies are owned by offshore hedge funds or private equity groups, which evade paying taxes by utilising thousands of shell companies and an array of shady financial mechanisms. The deadly crisis enveloping the care sector in the UK and internationally is not the result of a lack of money or resources, but an expression of the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, which subordinates human life to the drive for profit. While immense sums of public money have been funnelled into the stock market to protect the wealth of the ruling class, capitalist governments have uniformly enforced the fascistic rationing of health-care and protective equipment for the working class.

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