Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried – Week 5, March 2021

Our roundup of the progressive news you might have missed this week…

Your weekly dose of under-reported news, in no particular order… 

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10. A private health company CEO has been appointed as a health adviser to Boris Johnson – sparking concerns from anti-privatisation campaigners.

Samantha Jones is CEO of Openrose, a firm that has just taken over 49 GP practices across London.

Johnbosco Nwogbo, campaigns officer at We Own It said: “It is absolutely shocking that Boris Johnson has hired the CEO of the UK arm of a US health insurance giant as his health advisor. It’s made all the worst by the fact the company in question – Operose – has just taken over 49 GP practices across London, and whose American wing – Centene – is currently being sued in the USA for allegedly inflating costs and overcharging government departments.

“This is the revolving door of NHS privatisation in action – senior figures in the private health sector take on senior jobs in government and vice versa. The risk here is clear – a former private health company boss advising the government on health policy is unlikely to make the case for a publicly owned and publicly funded NHS.

“It’s time to end these cosy connections between government and the private health sector. And it’s time to kick the private companies out of our NHS and reinstate it as a fully public service.”

9. Unite, the UK’s construction union, is warning that safeguards need to be fully implemented in the workplace to protect workers from the ‘unintended consequences’ of hi-tech monitoring.

The union issued its warning following the promotion of the latest hi-tech monitoring equipment for construction workers. The company Kenzen is marketing a “monitoring platform’ that constantly tracks a worker’s heart rate, over-exertion and core body temperature, in order to detect when they encounter heat distress.

Unite has major concerns about the monitoring platform, including the use and storage of a worker’s private medical information. The union fears that companies installing the monitoring platform may become lax in implementing preventative measures such as covering work areas from direct sunlight, providing extra breaks and free water and amending shift times – or even sacking workers who suffer most from heat stress.

Unite believes that such deplorable practices are particularly likely in construction where the vast majority of the workforce are bogusly self-employed, work via umbrella companies or workers do not have employment rights as they have been employed for under two years.

Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “The principles behind the development of these monitoring devices is sound because for several weeks every year heat distress and exhaustion are a real danger for construction workers. As well as making the worker ill, it can dramatically increase the danger of them suffering an accident.

“However, the unintended consequences of this form of hi-tech monitoring are very serious and there is a real danger that employers will either fail to implement preventative matters, or use the data to victimise workers.

“It is ironic that construction workers are increasingly under the highest level of monitoring but have the fewest employment rights,” Mr Swain said.

8. Boris Johnson’s call for global cooperation on pandemics is “staggering”, vaccine campaigners have said, after the Prime Minister attributed the UK’s vaccine success to ‘greed’ and blocked attempts from low and middle income countries to produce their own vaccines.

Johnson has co-signed a letter with Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and 21 world leaders calling for governments to work together to tackle global pandemics “in the spirit of solidarity and co-operation, namely peace, prosperity, health and security”.

It comes after the UK, EU, and US blocked attempts from low and middle income countries, spearheaded by India and South Africa, to temporarily waive intellectual property on trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Global Justice Now, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for equitable vaccine access, has welcomed the introduction of a pandemic treaty, but warned that immediate action on patents is needed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, said: “The sheer hypocrisy of Boris Johnson calling for an international treaty on pandemics is staggering. He shamelessly attributed the UK’s vaccine success to ‘greed’ and tore down attempts from low and middle income countries to produce their own vaccines.

“If immunisation is a public good, then so too are vaccines. But the one thing Johnson, Merkel and Macron agree on is making sure private companies can build monopolies on these lifesaving drugs, at the rest of the world’s expense.

“It’s true that we need a new treaty to help build cooperation around pandemics and support global public health. But that is no replacement for governments taking urgent action now to override patents and ramp up production. It’s a vital first step not only to ending this pandemic, but showing governments are serious about real cooperation in future.”

7. Dr Gail Bradbrook, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion broke the window of Barclays Bank in Stroud on Tuesday morning.

Dr Bradbrook is already awaiting trial for alleged criminal damage at the Department for Transport in October 2019.

The action is part of XR’s ‘Money Rebellion’, using direct action tactics to ‘expose the role of banks in the climate and ecological crisis’.

Dr Bradbrook said: “Our leaders are not pushing for rapid action, they are ignoring the science– targets are inadequate and aren’t being met. We are on a path towards the collapse of our civilisation –with billions dying in our children’s lifetimes, according to some scientists. Those who are failing to lead adequate action on the climate and ecological crisis are committing Crimes Against Humanity.”

XR justified the actions by saying Barclays are the biggest funders of fossil fuels in Europe, financing fracking, coal, and Arctic oil and gas extraction. “Between 2016, when the Paris climate agreement was signed, and 2019, they poured more than $118bn into fossil fuels,” a statement from the group said.

6. Nearly 200,000 children became eligible for free school meals between January and October last year, UK government figures have revealed.

Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, commented: “This huge rise in eligibility for free school meals shows just how devastating this pandemic has been for family budgets. 

 “Four in five schools were using the national free school meal voucher scheme at the start of the month. Yet Ministers are scrapping this in favour of a scheme that will provide food support for just four days over Easter and create a postcode lottery in provision. 

“The Government should be guaranteeing free school meals support to all who need it, including through cash payments, rather than allowing children to go hungry over another school holiday.” 

5. Nicola Sturgeon has reiterated her call for Scots to cast ‘both votes SNP’ in May, following the launch of new independence party Alba.

The First Minister told the BBC leaders’ debate on Tuesday night: “These are serious times, and they demand serious leadership. Over the past year, I’ve done my best – every single day – to lead us through this pandemic.

“In asking you to re-elect me and the SNP, I offer you this. Continued strong leadership to guide us through the crisis. Covid is not over yet. We need an experienced hand at the wheel.

“Bold policies to drive our recovery – a new National Care Service, a Young Persons Guarantee, more affordable homes, action to tackle climate change and end child poverty.

“And, when the crisis has passed, a choice on independence – so that decisions about our future lie here in Scotland, not with Boris Johnson at Westminster. If you want to secure all of that, do not leave it to chance – cast both votes for the SNP on May 6th.”

4.  The Scottish Greens have pledged rent controls as part of a ‘new deal for renters’, to enshrine people’s right to a home.

The call comes after the pandemic exposed how private renting is often expensive and insecure. The Scottish Greens pledge to make the winter evictions ban a permanent feature after the pandemic, as they are in countries like France, strengthen the landlord registration process and establish a Private Rented Sector Regulator to oversee the sector, investigate tenants’ complaints and recommend future reforms.

The party says it plans to introduce a cross-cutting goal of ensuring that housing costs represent no more than 25% of a household’s income, including a points-based system of rent controls.

Commenting, Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater said: “The pandemic has been particularly hard for people with insecure living arrangements and for those who have been suddenly unable to pay their rent.

“It was thanks to pressure from the Scottish Greens that a winter eviction ban was introduced to ensure no one was thrown out of their home in the coldest time of the year. We believe this should be applied in non-COVID times like they do in France, as part of much tougher regulation of the sector.

“The SNP’s Rent Pressure Zones have failed. It’s time for proper rent controls. Tenants unions will be absolutely key to all this, so we need to ensure all private tenants are aware and have access to one, as well be informed about their rights and welfare entitlement.

“We need a fair and green recovery from the pandemic, and that starts with making sure everyone has a secure home.”

The SNP currently relies on the Greens to get its policies through the Scottish Parliament, with Slater’s party hoping to make gains this May.

3. Electing a Plaid Cymru Government on May 6th would enable Wales to “build a new economy” in order to root out inequality, the party’s leader Adam Price MS has said.

Speaking ahead of the launch of Plaid Cymru’s Welsh General Election campaign last Friday, Adam Price said that “putting Wales’ future in Wales’ hands” is the only way to “put an end to the poverty of ambition under Labour and to thwart the Tory threat to wipe Wales off the political map.”

Adam Price set out some of Plaid Cymru’s key election pledges including creating to 60,000 green jobs, training and recruiting 6,000 new frontline staff in the NHS and cutting the average Council Tax bill.

Mr Price said that Plaid Cymru is the only party offering a programme for government “with economic dynamism and social justice at its heart.”

Some of Plaid Cymru’s key policies will include delivering 50,000 social and affordable homes, a Green Economic Stimulus creating 60,000 jobs, and extending Free School Meals to every child in primary school, and increasing the amount of green public space.  

Mr Price said: “The past year has highlighted the interdependence between our economy and public services. The next Welsh Government will face a huge challenge in tackling unemployment, supporting businesses, and getting our schools and NHS back on track.

“Plaid Cymru is the only party offering a programme for government with economic dynamism and social justice at its heart.”

2. A judicial review into of the government’s practice of handing public sector jobs to key contacts without open recruitment has been granted permission. 

Good Law Project’s judicial review into decisions such as granting Baroness Dido Harding the top role at the test and trace programme will be heard in court, following concerns that a lack of open recruitment could be stifling diversity. Harding is a sitting Conservative Peer, wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham QC said in a statement to supporters: “We are now a “chumocracy” where having the right friends matters as much or more than having the right skills.

“Since the start of the pandemic, Government has created a number of new bodies whose leaders fall outside the usual public appointment regime. Many of the roles have gone to those personally connected to the Conservative Party…. 

“Harding is far from the only friend of the Conservative Party to land a top public sector job. Kate Bingham, wife of Tory MP and Treasury Minister, Jesse Norman and cousin by marriage of Rachel Johnson, was appointed Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce. The vaccine programme is a success but that no more vindicates the chumocracy than Harding’s failure damns it. 

“The principle – that we should be appointing on the basis of talent rather than relationships – remains the same. Our public bodies perform vital functions. They must always be run by the people who are best placed to do the job.”

1. MPs have urged the government to seize Britain’s ‘tidal power potential’.

In a new report, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has emphasised the ‘substantial potential’ of the tidal power sector to contribute to the UK’s renewable energy mix.  

In a letter to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the EAC has reflected on evidence it received in the latest stage of its Technological innovations and climate change inquiry. Members heard that current tidal stream projects in development already have the capacity to deliver 1GW of electricity to the grid. 

But the EAC also heard that tidal range projects – such as lagoons and barrages – are stuck at the concept stage, without sufficient funding to undertake studies required to secure further backing to assess long-term viability.  

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:  “Tidal power can offer numerous benefits and potential for the UK, which boasts over 7,500 miles of coastline and unrivalled resources to generate reliable power supplies without the vagaries of sunlight or wind.  

“While we appreciate the Government’s concern about the potential initial cost to the taxpayer to support early-stage tidal stream and tidal range structures, the benefits outweigh the costs. Support for tidal stream is likely to lead to a rapid fall in generating costs similar to, if not steeper than, the fall experienced in offshore wind. 

“Tidal range projects are relatively cheap to maintain once the initial costs are paid off, offering – in the longer term – a potentially affordable contribution to make to the UK’s renewable energy mix.”  

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward. Listen to audio versions of previous roundups for the UnionDues podcast.

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