Boris Johnson’s message to the working class: good luck out there | Owen Jones | Opinion

Boris Johnson’s televised address left a nation baffled, but there was one message the clarity of which should not be doubted. If you are a middle-class professional, then you can keep safely working from home, and whether you venture outside for leisure, exercise or sunbathing is entirely up to you. For everybody else, it’s time to get back to work, and best of luck!

An alliance of Tory libertarians, who believe in freedom for those can afford it, and wealthy Conservative backers, who are rather more interested in profit margins than the lives of vulnerable and older people, have grown tired of lockdown, quite unlike the public as a whole. And so Johnson’s messy compromise, as mentioned in his Sunday night address to the nation, is to “actively encourage” a return to work for those who cannot do so from home: factory workers, but not managers; cleaners, but not accountants.

Coronavirus is a class issue. It is not an indiscriminate grim reaper, selecting its victims at random with no regard for boundaries of class or ethnicity. It targets those with pre-existing health conditions, which are more likely to be found among poorer Britons. It has largely spared those who can earn their keep from their living rooms using Zoom, quite unlike those whose working lives make human contact an unavoidable necessity. According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, the lowest working-age death toll has been among men with professional occupations; the highest death toll has been among men toiling in low-skilled elementary occupations. If you boil down the statistics even more, the hardest hit include taxi drivers, bus drivers, security guards, chefs and care workers. More than 200 construction workers had died by 20 April, and as one trade unionist puts it: “How many of these died for that luxury flat, retail unit, football stadium or hotel?”

We have already learned that there is a stark ethnic divide: black people, for example, are four times more likely to die of coronavirus than white people. Class and race intersect in British society: people of colour are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs. While 11% of the British workforce is BAME, that figure rises to 44% of cab drivers and chauffeurs, 32% of security guards and 19% of bus and coach drivers and care workers. Some of those workers most exposed to poverty and discrimination have been left most exposed to this potentially deadly virus too.

As ever larger swathes of the British working class are ordered to return to their function as generators of revenue, the class impact of this pandemic will only be heightened. Avoid using public transport, suggests our prime minister: but that is rather easier for high earners, almost all of whom have access to a car, compared to the poorest, over half of whom do not. The children of the well-to-do can not only frolic in suburban gardens, but can now enjoy car journeys to the Peak District and the Broads; many of the urban poor, crammed into tower blocks and overcrowded council estates, do not have that option.

We are now told that we can apparently meet one friend or relative from outside our household at a time, but only in an outdoor public space while observing social distance; violating that rule may lead to financial penalties. How, then, does it make logical sense to ban larger gatherings outside for leisure purposes, but compel people to return to work indoors in close proximity to far greater numbers? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the health, and even lives, of working-class people are judged to be expendable for a greater cause: profit margins and shareholder returns.

Now we know what the “blue-collar Conservatism” marketed to the fallen Red Wall – where the Conservative party gained seats in last year’s election – really means. “Stay alert” means “stay at home but only if you can afford it”. This is “save middle-class lives” in deed if not word. The well-to-do will remain shielded while their workers risk their safety to maintain their fortunes. The class system prevails, even to the morgue.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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