Saturday 28 March 2020

Covid-19: A short video to explain exponential growth using the latest UK data

I've compiled a short video to:
* explain the mathematics behind exponential growth
* compare how well the latest data (for Covid-19 deaths in the UK) fits an exponential growth curve

* describe what can be done to "flatten the curve" - and what that means mathematically.

Watch it on YouTube here:

There's also a follow up here from 31/03/20 with, by request (!) some more about logarithms, then going on to say more about using log graphs to test for exponential growth and then using that to show that growth rates are hopefully now starting to fall in Italy and Spain.

And there's a third video below, posted on 04/04/20. This one looks at:
* The equation that helps model the 'S-curve' when an exponential curve flattens out and reaches a maximum limit
* How the growth in Covid-19 in the UK compares with Italy and Spain - two countries a week or two 'ahead' of the UK in their death statistics

Here's a fourth video, posted on 10/04/20 that looks at:
* What is meant by 'reaching the peak' of the logistic growth curve - but warns that this will still be a good way from the end of the crisis;

* Uses the revised daily death data for England to estimate some key variables more precisely and uses them to model a simplified growth curve based on those numbers.

Here's a fifth video examining the difficulty in analysing data from the UK and shows:
* How the official daily announcements of deaths have substantially underestimated the actual numbers per day
* How using maths - and comparisons with real data from a country like Italy - can help unpick the confusion - although still leaves plenty of uncertainty about exactly how quickly cumulative totals will continue to grow over the days and weeks ahead

Monday 23 March 2020

Can the capitalist system really solve the climate crisis?

At the time I wrote this article just a few short weeks ago, climate change seemed to be the issue that most glaringly exposed capitalism's inability to deal with a global crisis. Now, of course, Covid-19 has exposed its failures on a much more rapid timescale.

Both crises have laid bare how the capitalist nation state and production for private profit have to be urgently replaced by the building of a socialist world. 

Self-isolation and social distancing perhaps mean more people than usual have time on their hand to read at present - so please see what you make of this article - carried in the upcoming edition of Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)

On the climate strike, Liverpool, September 2019

Pricing out greenhouse gases?

In 1997, the Kyoto protocol established the setting of a price for carbon as capitalism’s solution for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, in order to prevent a critical increase in global temperatures. The treaty was meant to establish a global market for trading carbon permits that, through the magic of the market, would incentivise individual nations and companies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and invest in low-carbon alternatives.

The preferred market model at the outset was an international cap-and-trade system. The idea was that countries would be set a limit on emissions totalling an overall global cap. If one nation – or a business given its own limit by a government – wanted to exceed its cap, it would have to buy additional emission rights from the carbon market. If it managed to reduce emissions beneath the cap, it could sell the unused allocations on the market as well.

The plan was that the overall cap would be reduced gradually, leading to a phased reduction in greenhouse gases over time. Over twenty years later, it is self-evident that the market mechanisms proposed in Kyoto have completely failed to prevent continued global warming.

Competition not co-operation

The latest scientific data show that all key indicators of climate change are worsening. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise rapidly. Glaciers and ice sheets are retreating. Global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, as does the frequency of extreme weather events.

Far from the situation improving, the pace of global warming is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. Capitalism has launched us on a catastrophic trajectory that is forecast to see global temperatures rising to 3.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Unless reversed, that would mean irreversible tipping points are reached that result in permanent catastrophic change for humanity.

Climate change is, of course, a global problem that demands global co-operation and planning. Kyoto, and all the climate summit failures since, have shown without doubt that capitalism cannot meet that demand. A world made up of competing nation states and economic blocs was never going to agree on a global cap and carbon price that could really tackle global warming with sufficient urgency.

How could such a cost be meaningfully arrived at in the first place? It would require setting a price on the effects of fixing climate change now and into the future. That cannot be done through the capitalist market where, in practice, decisions are largely dependent on political compromises allowing agreements to be stitched together between nations with competing short-term economic interests.

Capitalism’s inability to overcome these national differences was glaringly obvious in the fact that neither China’s regime nor the USA administration adopted binding targets after 1997. Yet these two nations alone accounted for 44% of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2018.

The US refused to ratify the Kyoto treaty. US capitalism was not prepared to weaken its economic position by adopting measures that could undermine its profitability, particularly the influential big coal and oil interests. Later, Canada also withdrew from Kyoto on similar grounds. It had committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below its 1990 levels by 2012, but by 2009 its emissions were 17% higher.

US capitalism argues that it cannot be expected to take on the economic costs of a global problem unless its economic and strategic rivals commit to do the same, not least China. In 1997, China was still classed as a ‘developing country’ and was, therefore, exempted from Kyoto targets. Now, however, it is the world’s biggest net emitter of greenhouse gases, although not per head of population. In turn, China’s regime argues that it should not have to pay the cost for a problem first created by imperialist countries.

The tensions between global competitors will remain a major stumbling block in reaching any global agreement on a capitalist basis.

Market failure

As a result, despite all the climate summits and the mounting evidence of accelerating climate change, no single global market has been created and 80% of greenhouse gases are still not covered by any price. Nonetheless, some markets were set up, most notably, the Emissions Trading System (ETS) established by the European Union in 2005.

Yet the ETS has shown the limitations of such a market mechanism. Rather than make businesses pay for their allowances, the ETS distributed credits to them freely. Global recession in 2008 then resulted in reduced demand leaving many firms well beneath their allocated caps. So, rather than driving genuine change, the unused credits generated windfall profits for shareholders.

Even if operating as planned, however, a market based on one region cannot resolve a global problem. While the EU has cut its carbon emissions, particularly from burning coal, those reductions have been counteracted by importing goods from other regions, particularly China, where emissions are increasing.

As the big-business-sponsored Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) points out: “Even in regions with established carbon pricing initiatives and declining territorial emissions, such as the European Union, the overall carbon footprint has actually increased in certain years, when accounting for the (consumption-based) CO2 emissions embodied in internationally traded goods”.

The EU claims that the carbon content of imports is now falling. However, its calculations are based on the assumption that “imported products are produced with production technologies similar to those employed within the EU-28” member states – 27 now, of course, with Brexit. In reality, most will have been produced in economies reliant on higher greenhouse emissions.

European big business has also complained that it has been difficult to plan investments because of uncertainty about the level of carbon pricing. As with any traded market, carbon prices within the ETS have varied widely. In recent years the EU has intervened to reduce the supply of emission allowances. That has driven up the carbon price which now stands at around $25 a ton. That is a significant increase on the period between 2012 and 2017 when, in the wake of the global recession, the price fell beneath $10 per ton. Before that, in 2007, an excess of supply over demand had seen the carbon price during the pilot phase of the ETS collapse, effectively, to zero.

Offsetting or greenwashing?

A similar crash in prices torpedoed another market mechanism set up as part of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM was an ‘offset’ programme that allowed industrialised countries to turn their support for greenhouse emissions reduction projects in a developing country (mainly China, in practice) into a credit that allowed them to exceed their own emissions targets.

In the face of market uncertainty following the global recession, CDM credit prices fell beneath $1 and led to the mechanism’s complete collapse. The ongoing wrangle over whether unclaimed CDM credits might still be honoured as part of a new global offset scheme was one of the sticking points that could not be resolved at the latest climate summit, COP25 in Madrid, last December (see: Bad Cop, Socialism Today No.235, February 2020). It is far from clear how much genuine offsetting occurred under the CDM and how much proved to be merely an accountancy exercise allowing big business to get around emissions limits while proclaiming its ‘green’ credentials.

Moreover, the profiteering inevitable under capitalism has been exposed in some of the ‘voluntary’ offset programs that have also been created. Forestry offset projects, where businesses have claimed to be supporting reforestation programmes in return for continued greenhouse gas emissions, have been particularly criticised. It is rarely clear whether a forest has really been conserved and whether any protection is ongoing.

A recent Daily Telegraph investigation suggested that much of the deforestation offsetting backed by companies like British Airways, easyJet, BP and Shell achieves little beyond greenwashing their reliance on fossil fuels. It quoted Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, explaining that “what customers aren’t told is that this market is an unregulated Wild West, and there’s little evidence that offsetting schemes generally work”.

The Telegraph report concluded that “the solution is a properly regulated market” – not necessarily a conclusion shared by the proprietors of this right-wing, Tory-supporting newspaper! But how can one set of profiteers be trusted to regulate other profiteers? Working-class oversight, through the democratic public ownership of industry and finance, is the only way to ensure the future of the planet.

‘Leakage’ to economic rivals

The lack of a global agreement increases the risk that any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made in one part of the world would be undermined by greater emissions elsewhere. Some capitalist economists are raising the danger of carbon ‘leakage’ where, rather than being ‘incentivised’ towards lower carbon production, a multinational operating in an area covered by a carbon market could simply opt to move production to another region that is not. In reality, of course, these commentators are not only concerned with global emissions, they also fear the hit to profits that could result.

Economists further warn that capitalist supply and demand could have other unintended consequences if, for example, the oil price falls as more industries move to sustainable energy resources. That might then drive up oil consumption in areas without a carbon limit.

They also discuss the risk that goods produced more cheaply in countries without the overheads of a carbon tax or cap could gain a competitive advantage over their rivals who do. This is a particular concern for energy-intensive sectors like steel, aluminium and cement. For example, when Arcelor Mittal announced cutbacks to its steel production in France and Germany last year, it cited rising carbon prices as part of its reasoning.

The capitalists operating in those sectors are pushing for the threat to their competitiveness to be countered by ‘border carbon adjustments’, essentially, additional tariffs levying a domestic carbon price on imports from jurisdictions that do not price carbon. However, other capitalist interests oppose measures that risk adding to protectionism and a reduction in world trade. These conflicting interests are only going to diverge further in the face of a new world downturn.

Raising the global carbon price

Up to now, the risks posed to corporations and nation-state economies through localised carbon markets have not been particularly significant because prices have been kept at such a low level. Globally, the IMF estimates they average no more than $2 a ton of CO2. However, in turn, there is also general agreement among capitalist economists that carbon pricing, therefore, has failed to address climate change in the way that their market-driven theories had envisaged.

A section of capitalist economists recognise that their market-based solutions require carbon prices to increase substantially. In the face of the damning evidence that urgent action is needed, it has fallen on the IMF to carry out an analysis to estimate how high global carbon prices would need to be set.

The 2015 Paris accord agreed an international goal of at least preventing global temperatures increasing beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels – without any binding targets to achieve it! Climate scientists have since warned that 2°C is too high to avoid severe consequences and that even deeper greenhouse gas emissions cuts and swifter action are required. Nevertheless, the IMF decided to calculate what global carbon price would be required to meet that Paris goal, concluding that it required a rapid increase to $75 a ton of carbon dioxide by 2030.

The IMF is not alone in concluding that such a steep carbon price increase is necessary. In 2017, the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, chaired by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Lord Nicholas Stern, also concluded that carbon needs to be priced between $40-80 by 2020, then rise to $50-100 by 2030, to achieve the Paris target. Of course, 2020 has already arrived, so this remains another recommendation where international capitalism is showing itself to be incapable of even acting on its own advice.

Can a capitalist solution be found?

Clearly, capitalists will never accept that their system is the problem. Instead, acting through bodies like the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, they continue to try and find a global market-based solution. The CPLC claims the backing of 34 national and sub-national governments, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Canada. It is also supported by over 160 businesses, including BP, Shell, NestlĂ©, Siemens, Unilever and other major firms. Its conclusions offer a good idea of how capitalism thinks it might yet manage an “orderly transition to a low-carbon resilient global economy”.

Instead of questioning capitalist methods, the CPLC maintains that the market can still provide a solution, just as long as carbon prices are applied globally at the high levels recommended by the IMF. At the same time, it acknowledges business concerns about “the potential for international competitors to have an unfair advantage if they do not face a similar carbon price”. It offers reassurance that these fears are exaggerated and that other variables, such as wages and corporate tax rates, can be adjusted to “alleviate competitiveness concerns”. In other words, the costs can be passed on to the working class, and profits can be protected!

Of course, if that does not work and profits are threatened, the pure ‘free market’ can be put to one side. The CPLC recommends “temporary or partial exemptions for certain specific industries or regions competing heavily on a global scale”. So, in the final analysis, the requirement for short-term profit outweighs its faith in the ability of the market to solve climate change.

The conditional support for a carbon price hike is evident in the responses from big business on the CPLC website. For example, Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, agrees that “carbon pricing is a crucial tool”, but “best would be a global carbon price for all”. For now, however, it says that, “as regions implement climate policy at different speeds… measures to overcome the impact on competition can and should be part of a carbon pricing scheme”. Meanwhile, Michelin’s chief executive commented that the “Michelin Group has always been in favour of pricing carbon”, on condition that “the system is transparent, rewards best performers, and ensures a level playing field worldwide”.

Capitalism is searching for an agreement that cuts greenhouse gas emissions while protecting existing big-business interests from being undercut by global competitors. But that’s simply beyond its means. The higher the price set for carbon, the more big businesses will plead for special protection to safeguard their profits. The more exemptions that are agreed, the lower the carbon price will be, driven down by the market.

A solution can only be achieved through a socialist global plan, motivated by the joint interests of the world’s workers and poor in reversing climate change, rather than the short-term profit motives of capitalism.

Carbon taxes

World capitalism’s initial preferred mechanism for applying carbon pricing was a cap-and-trade system that set a ceiling on global emissions. Now, given the glaring failure of the Kyoto protocol, capitalist economists are increasingly backing an alternative approach: applying carbon taxes directly to households or businesses. It was on this basis, having tried to determine the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, that the IMF arrived at its figure of $75 a ton.

In practice, it has been estimated that a carbon tax levied at that level could see the price of, for example, natural gas – still widely used for power generation and household use – increasing by 70% on average. But what effect would that have on both the production costs for capitalism and the living standards of workers?

Supporters of taxation measures point to Sweden – where a carbon tax of $140 per ton has been levied – as reassurance that it would not hold back economic growth. Its introduction was combined with a reduction in income tax to offset the effect on individual household income. An expansion of district heating networks also meant that most homes no longer rely on buying in their own fuel. Electricity generation from fossil fuels has been cut through the expansion of alternatives, including hydropower, biofuels and wind energy. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 26%, although they remain high in the transport sector.

Nonetheless, applying a carbon tax to a developed economy with the resources to invest in alternative technology would not translate so easily into a global model. Moreover, the carbon tax is facing growing opposition within Sweden, particularly in rural areas where workers rely on cars for transport. Economists have also pointed out that, as emissions fall, the income generated by the carbon tax falls with it. The Swedish government is now investigating introducing a per-kilometre road tax to generate further income. Once again, workers will foot the bill rather than big business.

Because energy costs make up a greater share of the budget of low-income families, a carbon tax will inevitably fall hardest upon the working class. But as discussed already, significant carbon taxes will also face resistance from big business and governments worried about being undercut by rivals without the same overheads. These concerns will grow sharper as the tensions between different trading blocs increase against the background of world economic slowdown. International efforts to find a capitalist solution based on a global price on carbon dioxide emissions will undoubtedly continue. They will also continue to fail to reach any meaningful agreement.

The serious thinkers of capitalism are only too aware that climate change is an existential threat that needs urgent action. Their proposals, however, are always constrained by the limits of the system they defend. Without addressing the twin barriers of the nation state and the profit system, their market-based solutions have not – and cannot – succeed. Capitalism is incapable of taking the united international action needed to reverse climate warming. Only a system change that replaces it with a global socialist plan can achieve that urgent goal.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Defeating Disease - Teaching Resources

I've put together three presentations based on some old Nuffield/Heinemann materials that I still have on my bookshelves.

I hope that the publishers won't object to me sharing these in the present situation as they could be useful for work within schools offering provision to groups of children - or for those at home.

Please click here to see the files - posted as pptx and pdf files - 
a) The Plague at Eyam (a play)
b) Pasteur discovers vaccines (another play)
c) 'Wash Your Hands' - carriers of disease and 'Typhoid Mary'

Thursday 19 March 2020

Coronavirus can only be tackled by agreement - not by dictat

UPDATE – 20 March 2020

Today has been a difficult day for school staff and students alike. While Johnson continues to make announcements that are lacking in vital detail, staff on the ground are left to try and turn them into safe and workable plans.

Year 6, 11 and 13 have had an emotional day realising it might well be their last day in their schools. Meanwhile schools have had to deal with the government’s last minute release of a list of who counts as ‘keyworkers’ that is completely open to interpretation.

This has created a real danger that some schools may try and open on Monday to far too many pupils – completely undermining the public health reasons for closure (as explained below). Some working parents' employers may also use it as a reason to demand they turn up for work on Monday when, in fact, schools may simply not be in a position to guarantee their child a place next week.

To try and make some sense of the chaos, it is worth looking at the advice from the National Association of Head Teachers. Some of the key points in the NAHT advice are:
  • This list is exceptionally broad and poses significant challenges for schools. Our advice remains, a school can only open in so far as it is safe to do so. This may mean schools have to prioritise according to need.
  • Schools will need to take account of both: a) the latest government scientific advice on the proportion of pupils that it is advisable to maintain direct support for in order to maintain efforts to delay the spread of the virus. This has been set by the government as a maximum of 20% of the school population* and b) the number of staff available to work. This may require schools to prioritise which pupils receive an offer, according to greatest need. * We note that the 20% figure has not been included in the government’s latest guidance. Our understanding remains that the medical advice suggests that schools should try not to exceed the 20% figure.
  • You should stress to parents that school will close on Friday and that you will notify them when it will reopen to provide the reduced provision offer for certain pupils. The school should make clear that some families will receive an offer of a place to attend the school during this time of wider closure. You must clearly explain to all parents, whether they are key workers or not, that only families with an offer of a place should attend the school.
  • The key message is that schools are closed, but they are doing what they can to support families, given these unprecedented circumstances.
If you believe your school is acting unsafely and/or unfairly with regard to staff attendance and/or pupil numbers for next week, contact your local union officers immediately. If you have no other route, feel free to message me (you can find me on Facebook) and I will see what I can do to assist.

Yesterday's hurried announcement that schools will need to close from Friday has left schools and Local Authorities with a huge task to put plans in place for children of key workers and vulnerable families.

In many schools and Authorities, unions, managers and officials from different services are working together in the best interests of all. They've not been helped by the (sadly predictable) lack of further information coming from government. 

Staff are sharing information, contacting families and staff, and putting together mutually agreed, safe and workable plans. Many school leaders and admin staff have been working flat out to do so. Many staff are making clear that they are only too willing to do what they can to support those plans as well.

Regrettably, however, the bullying leadership approach that has marred education for so long has become evident even in this time of crisis. Such behaviour risks destroying the goodwill and cooperation that is vital if this crisis is going to be tackled successfully.

Staff are reporting that in some schools, Headteachers are simply insisting that schools are open next week - if not for all pupils - and that all staff must report for work. 

Such an approach shows a complete lack of understanding of why schools are being closed in the first place. Trade unions urgently need to try and assert control in order to defend staff, students and our communities.

1) For public health reasons, no more staff than necessary should attend work.

Schools will, of course, not yet be clear exactly how many students they need to support next week. However, it's worth stressing that the Government announcement yesterday indicated that schools would only remain open for a small proportion of children - and for good reasons.

Every educator will want to do what they can to help children and families but school staff themselves, in their willingness to support their communities, need to remember the wording of the excellent letter from one Headteacher that I posted yesterday.

This Manchester Head wrote to explain to parents that, because of the lack of testing, and the fact that the infection can - and is - being passed on by people who are not - or not yet - exhibiting symptoms, nobody knows "if one, none or all have the virus … The government make the point that the virus does not seriously affect children and young people. However, this does not mean that they won’t become carriers. They then risk taking the virus home to their families. Families with pregnant mothers, families with elderly relatives, family whose members might be poorly”.

Many countries are going into far tighter lockdowns in order to urgently stop the spread of the coronavirus. There is a real risk that by insisting staff attend in large numbers, and/or by widening the number of pupils remaining in schools too far, schools will be assisting in spreading the virus further. Rather than helping our communities and key workers, this increases the risk even further of our health services being completely overwhelmed.

Instead of insisting all staff attend work as normal, arrangements need to be made to establish smaller teams of volunteers to staff schools, perhaps with agreed rotas. Most pupils will be at home and other staff can assist them in distance learning as far as is possible.

Of course, needs may fall unevenly across different schools. Those that have greater needs should be offered additional support. For example, supply cover teams should be set up by Local Authorities to help provide it.

In short, for good public health reasons, no more staff than necessary should attend work while schools are closed for most pupils.

2) Some staff should definitely NOT attend work at all

Many schools were already facing staffing difficulties because staff were unable to attend work. This may have been because they were themselves correctly following government advice to self-isolate, have health or childcare needs, or were caring for others in that category.

The letter sent by the National Education Union to Boris Johnson on 17 March stated that:
"You announced yesterday that vulnerable people are to confine themselves for 12 weeks from this weekend. On our understanding this includes
  • pregnant women 
and those who are suffering from:

  • chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis;
  • chronic heart disease, such as heart failure;
  • chronic kidney disease;
  • chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis;
  • chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy;
  • diabetes
  • problems with their spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or if they have had their spleen removed;
  • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy;
  • being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above). 

We assume that on this basis teachers and other school and college staff who have these conditions or who are caring for people with those conditions, or who are over 70 should self-isolate".

The letter stated that the NEU "intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest".

That position should now be honoured by employers, and any staff in these categories should be absent on full pay.

3) Employment Law could be used by unions if required

No trade union wants to have to resort to employment law to assert their members' rights at this time but, regrettably, they may have to.

As employment lawyers have themselves been quietly warning employers, legislation like Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 could be invoked by a trade union in support of its members if necessary.

Section 44 protects employees from detriment "in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent … he refused to return to his place of work". In a situation where no Headteacher can provide a written guarantee that their members of staff and/or students are not carriers of a potentially deadly virus, it is certainly very arguable that such a reasonable belief of a serious and imminent danger applies. 

If, as we can only hope does not happen, the Government were to try and use emergency legislation to waive such rights and/or to force workers to waive their leave over the Easter period, then this would be an unacceptable threat to conditions and rights which would cause justifiable outrage amongst school staff. For that reason, it would also be entirely counter-productive.

4) Trade unions must have oversight and insist employers proceed by agreement - not by dictat

Instead of trying to impose and instruct, arrangements need to be put in place to staff schools through mutual agreement.

"School leaders and school union reps, in consultation with local authority services and parents, need to urgently meet together to plan out what can be safely provided, and how much additional support they will need in terms of staffing and resources. Trade unions must have oversight in drawing up the plans in every school.

Many staff will be willing to volunteer to be in the workplace but others with health needs, vulnerable relatives or their own childcare difficulties, will not be able to. The decision on whether to be in the workplace or working from home must be voluntary, not enforced. Either way, all staff should continue to work on full pay, especially those on agency contracts who otherwise stand to lose substantially when schools close.

Local Authorities should establish their own centrally-employed supply pools providing staff who can be directed to schools where there are staffing shortages.

Staff need to be able to work safely, with sufficient cleaning and all other necessary safety measures being put in place.

Budget pressures must not be a barrier to doing what needs to be done. The Government needs to be held to its promise to ‘do whatever it takes’ and guarantee all additional costs will be met in full. They also urgently need to deliver on their promise to provide coronavirus testing for NHS, carers and school staff so that public service workers are no longer working in the dark as to whether they are passing on infection to service users or not".

This video has also been released this evening giving an update from the National Education Union:

Wednesday 18 March 2020

UK schools to close - what needs to be done now

The Government have had to bow to the inevitable and announce the closure of all schools from Friday until further notice, except for children of key workers and the ‘most vulnerable’.

This was true when it was written last week - it's even truer now!

Making the announcement, Boris Johnson unconvincingly attempted to make this decision sound as if it was all part of a clear plan. In reality, it has been another rushed decision that he has had to take under growing pressure from the National Education Union (NEU) and Headteachers who really understood the impossible position facing schools as the virus spreads in our communities.

Growing numbers of schools were already having to announce closure and that they were moving to online learning where they could. This was because of falling staffing levels as staff followed advice to self-isolate. As the Head of one of the first schools to close, Stretford High in Manchester, explained in her letter to parents on Monday, “the impact on staffing means it is not operationally possible to run the school safely … Staff members who have symptoms are not being tested … . I do not know if one, none or all have the virus … The government make the point that the virus does not seriously affect children and young people. However, this does not mean that they won’t become carriers. They then risk taking the virus home to their families. Families with pregnant mothers, families with elderly relatives, family whose members might be poorly”.

Of course, school workers worry about the impact that closure could have on the vulnerable, on families of essential workers, pupils with exams and those on free school meals. That’s why the NEU, while calling for closure, also called on the Government to use schools as community hubs to help lead on this community support.

Johnson has had to take notice. He has announced that this summer’s exams will not take place. Year 11 and 13 students will be worrying about what that means for them. The government should agree that teacher assessments should be used instead. The pointless primary school SATS should just be scrapped. The government must instruct broadband providers to provide it free so that children can access the online resources that schools have been compiling.*

The Government has also promised that arrangements will be made to provide free school meals through schools or by the provision of vouchers. Schools have also been asked to remain partially open to provide childcare support for key workers and the most vulnerable children.

But, once again, Johnson has provided no clear plan. Which staff are expected to report to work? Who decides which children and families will be supported and which are not? How will special schools or others with particularly high levels of needs be safely staffed ?

School leaders and school union reps, in consultation with local authority services and parents, need to urgently meet together to plan out what can be safely provided, and how much additional support they will need in terms of staffing and resources. Trade unions must have oversight in drawing up the plans in every school.

Many staff will be willing to volunteer to be in the workplace but others with health needs, vulnerable relatives or their own childcare difficulties, will not be able to. The decision on whether to be in the workplace or working from home must be voluntary, not enforced. Either way, all staff should continue to work on full pay, especially those on agency contracts who otherwise stand to lose substantially when schools close.

Local Authorities should establish their own centrally-employed supply pools providing staff who can be directed to schools where there are staffing shortages.

Staff need to be able to work safely, with sufficient cleaning and all other necessary safety measures being put in place.

Budget pressures must not be a barrier to doing what needs to be done. The Government needs to be held to its promise to ‘do whatever it takes’ and guarantee all additional costs will be met in full. They also urgently need to deliver on their promise to provide coronavirus testing for NHS, carers and school staff so that public service workers are no longer working in the dark as to whether they are passing on infection to service users or not.

These critical decisions cannot be left to a Government that has shown itself to be incompetent in the face of crisis. It will have to be for schools, school unions and their staff to work out what now needs to be done and to take the necessary urgent action.

*Broadband demand added after initial posting  - thanks to colleagues for suggesting this important addition.

Coronavirus Crisis - Socialist Planning needed, not Capitalist Chaos

A newly-spreading virus is a danger that can befall any society. The question facing the world today, however, is what kind of society can best meet such a challenge. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, capitalism is being exposed for its inability to do so.

Decaying British capitalism, personified in the inept leadership of Boris Johnson, is making an unwanted bid for global pre-eminence in incompetence in the face of this crisis.

Most seriously affected countries have adopted World Health Organisation recommended procedures of widespread testing of individuals and monitoring of social contacts of those with suspected exposure. Even then, as Italy has shown, health services can quickly become overwhelmed and the death toll mounts rapidly.

In Britain, things could become far worse even than Italy. Those feeling unwell are simply being advised to ‘self-isolate’ with testing only being carried out on those being hospitalised with serious symptoms. That leaves both individuals and public services without any clear idea of the real levels or geographical focus of Covid-19 infection.

Of course, widespread testing requires resources, but successive UK Governments have run down the NHS over decades. Together, Public Health England and NHS laboratories have a capacity to carry out only 4000 tests daily. That’s totally inadequate given the scale of the crisis.

Hospitals and NHS staff are also criminally ill-equipped to treat infected patients. Doctors have complained of shortages of even the most basic necessities such as face visors and goggles to provide personal protection to medical staff.

Instead of expecting the NHS to make do with such scant resources, a minimum requirement should be to inject emergency expenditure alongside an expansion of laboratories to carry out wider testing.

But when the Tories announced that they were going to find what funding was needed to deal with the crisis, they weren’t thinking of the plight of ordinary workers. No, they are looking to bailout big firms like Virgin who are suddenly facing a profit squeeze, not help workers being told they must take unpaid leave.

Neither do they want to spend any more than they are forced to on schools, hospitals and social care provision, despite the growing demands from communities hit by Covid-19.

Even where capitalist governments accept that they have little choice but to inject extra funding into health services, they still have to rely on the capitalist market to provide the goods.

However, pharmaceutical firms, private laboratories and equipment manufacturers aren’t going to offer their services cheaply. Instead, they will look on the emergency demand as an opportunity to push up prices and profits.

The NHS in England only has around 4000 critical care beds. More beds, together with other vitally needed capacity, remain available in private hospitals. Yes, private providers have been happy to go into negotiations with the government about how they can assist at this time of need – but, of course, only if the price is right.

Capitalism’s inability to solve this crisis isn’t just limited by private ownership for profit. Competition between different nation states also provides another critical barrier. Both issues are blocking the necessary urgency towards developing a vaccine that could provide a long-term solution to the global pandemic.

Research and development will once again be hampered by the competing selfish interests of different global pharmaceutical firms.

Cuban biotech industries have, however, been able to produce antiviral medicines that are already being trialled by Chinese doctors to judge their effect on patients infected by Covid-19. With all its limitations, the success in this field of Cuba’s small and distorted but still state-directed economy, sharply exposes the failure of global capitalist corporations to put needs before profits.

The obscenity of capitalist production for profit, instead of need, is being mostly sharply exposed in the urgent need to massively expand the provision of ventilators. The death toll of the elderly in Italy has shown that these are vital to treat coronavirus patients.

The NHS only has access to about 5000 of them. This is far less than is going to be needed very soon to meet the needs of both existing patients with other illnesse,s and the impending explosion of new Covid-19 cases.

Tory Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been reduced to pleading with industry to help by converting their production lines to the manufacture of ventilators. Rolls-Royce, JCB, Ford and Honda are reportedly just some of the firms in negotiations with the UK Government.

Technique and engineering capabilities do not provide a barrier to producing the equipment needed. Private capitalist ownership does. Engineers have apparently been asked to draw up plans to produce ventilators but the specialised firms that own the designs will need to be persuaded to give up their “intellectual property rights”.

Instead of people’s needs having to wait while profiteers strike their hard bargains, a socialist plan of production could quickly get the job done. It just requires matching the skills of engineers, working in conjunction with health professionals, with the resources of central government.

Yes, the private owners would object. But society should be run in the interests of the majority, not the few, especially at such a time of crisis. Instead of pleading with big business, the relevant firms should be nationalised to allow a unified plan of production.

Nationalisation should be with compensation only on the basis of proven need, for example to protect workers’ pension funds. Neither should initiative and creativity continue to be limited by maintaining top-down management methods. Nationalised firms should be run under the democratic control of workers in those industries, together with representatives of those in the wider workforce, health unions and patient groups.

Democratic workers’ control and management would give a concrete form to the organisation that working-class communities will be building to support each other in this time of crisis. That will encompass battling to defend incomes and safe living and working conditions, helping to support the elderly and vulnerable, or even, as in Italy, singing from balcony to balcony to keep up community spirits!

Instead of being hampered by the selfish interests of a capitalist elite, workers would have the opportunity to control industry in the interests of the majority.

These firms should co-operate internationally with other similarly nationalised concerns to share research and development, and mutually plan the production and supply of vaccines, medicine and equipment. They could also offer assistance to nations without a well-developed economy and health service where, without such international solidarity, the impact of Covid-19 will be severe.

Such an emergency plan of production offers the best chance of resolving the coronavirus pandemic without it having too severe a global impact. But it would also offer a glimpse of how a global socialist plan of production could start to resolve all the other urgent threats to humanity, not least poverty and climate change.

Of course, capitalism would not allow such a world to be created without resisting socialist change. It will still try and use the distortion of Stalinism in the past in Russia and Eastern Europe to confuse workers with the spectre of supposedly socialist ‘dictatorship’.

But it will become ever clearer that it is working people that are needed to keep society afloat – cleaners, delivery drivers, metalworkers, doctors and all the rest of us. However, we can do without the capitalist who just puts the barrier of profit in the way of what needs to be done.

The bitter experience of the greed and incapacity of capitalist leaders to deal with this crisis over the months ahead, and the more general economic crisis that will unfold alongside it, will have a lasting impact on workers’ consciousness. Capitalism’s failings will be brought home in stark fashion. The need to build a socialist future will become ever more apparent.

Published in the latest issue of '"The Socialist" newspaper - read more here

Friday 13 March 2020

Coronavirus - Protect Health, Safety and Pay

COVID-19 is now officially a pandemic. With the economy already in trouble, the Tories have announced in the Budget that extra funds are available after all. However, unlike the last crash, unions need to make sure the bailout isn’t just for big business but protects workers too.

Johnson claims he is being guided by health advice. But the fact that the Tories’ first plan to deal with school staff absence was to remove class size limits suggests otherwise. Their primary motivation seems to be to keep workplaces open while expecting schools to child-mind, never mind the risks to health.

Of course, schools can play an important role supporting children from vulnerable families and, for example, emergency workers, but, if schools stay open, union groups must organise to make sure health, safety and welfare is put first. That includes employing additional supply staff to cover absences and counsellors that may be needed, training staff to answer children’s concerns, and time for regular hand washing and adequate cleaning. If schools close, then demands on staff to work from home or elsewhere must also be reasonable and agreed with unions. 

Unions must also urgently insist that agency staff are not left unable to pay their bills. Casualisation and privatisation of supply cover already means supply staff are inadequately paid. Closures and/or self-isolation could mean drastic income losses. Unions must demand that all staff affected by the crisis have their pay protected fully.

Councils should use their reserves and emergency powers to meet extra costs and demand the Government foots the bill.

This article is part of the latest Socialist Party in Schools Bulletin - download a copy here