Boris Johnson Must Learn Lessons From Italy: People Before Profit!

Most people know that we cannot trust Boris Johnson and his government to take the correct measures to protect the safety of the working-class. That much was made clear last Monday when Johnson was forced to drop the government’s dangerous strategy of promoting so-called “herd immunity” which experts warned would result in the unnecessary deaths of around a quarter of a million British people!

A crisis is enveloping the world and an article published in Saturday’s New York Times (March 21) pointed out how urgent lessons must be learned from Italy which has now “surpassed China as the country with the highest death toll, becoming the epicenter of a shifting pandemic.” At the moment the area of Italy most affected by the pandemic is the northern region of Lombardy, an area famous for its high density of factories and horrific pollution — a factor which is believed to have only intensified the power of Covid 19 to kill.

However, like Johnson the Italian authorities have demonstrated their inability to place the needs of people before profit. The Times reports that on Friday the government “sent in the army to enforce the lockdown in Lombardy” but at the same time they still kept factories open that were producing non-essential products!

It was only after the growing death toll was announced on Saturday that the government finally acknowledged that they would respond to the demands being raised by socialists and trade unionists. Hence the New York Times wrote:

“On Saturday night, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced another drastic step in response to what he called the country’s most difficult crisis since the Second World War: Italy will close its factories and all production that is not absolutely essential, an enormous economic sacrifice intended to contain the virus and protect lives.”

The lesson that must be learned now by the Johnson government is that they should not sacrifice the lives of British factory workers currently being forced to go to work to produce non-essential items. The Tories must make the call now, before it is too late, and cease all production of goods that are not absolutely essential to defeating the pandemic.

The fact that the Italian government delayed making the “economic sacrifice” of shutting their factories is appalling but shows exactly where the priorities of capitalist politicians really lie. For example an article published on Saturday by exhausted clinicians working at the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo (a brand-new state-of-the-art facility with 48 intensive-care beds) noted how their “own hospital is highly contaminated, and we are far beyond the tipping point”. But worse still the clinicians explained:

“But the situation in the surrounding area is even worse. Most hospitals are overcrowded, nearing collapse… We have been in quarantine since March 10. Unfortunately, the outside world seems unaware that in Bergamo, this outbreak is out of control.” (March 21)

Yet while “the government put 26 provinces in the country’s northern region under quarantine to halt the outbreak” on March 8, with restrictions preventing all but essential travel, hundreds of factories were kept open! This meant that companies were largely able to carry on with business as normal, with very few taking the correct precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. One media report from Italy, dated March 10, pointed out how:

“At factories producing for the fashion sector, work mostly appears to be continuing… Candiani, a denim mill that supplies high-end clients such as Hugo Boss and Stella McCartney, put a notice on its website that production and deliveries are occurring as normal, but it has limited visits from suppliers and limited travel abroad for its staff.”

The lessons to learn here from the Italian example will be apparent to all workers in Britain. The Johnson government must be forced to take immediate action, and to do so in a way that does not degrade our basic democratic rights. Some initial demands that have been formulated by Socialist Alternative include (but are not limited to) the following:

+ No faith in the Tory government to decide what measures are necessary or for how long – for democratic trade union and community committees to decide on recommendations

+ Widespread provision of free, rapid testing for Coronavirus. Government resources to use this data to fully and properly monitor the spread of the disease

+ Closure of all non-essential workplaces, with no job losses and wages guaranteed – including for workers on precarious or zero-hour contracts. Employers to support work from home arrangements wherever possible. For emergency state-funded childcare for those who need to work.

+ A coordinated, international strategy, to fight the virus and develop a vaccine to be free and accessible to everyone – don’t leave it to the corporations and big pharma!

For a detailed report from a socialist based in Italy see the following video that was produced on Saturday.


Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).