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First Thoughts: Why Boris Johnson can’t keep people safe at work, and the new age of the car

Tory cuts and their disdain for health and safety have come home to roost: the inspectors we need to get a post-virus economy working are gone.

By Peter Wilby

Remember how the Tories, over many years, mocked ’elf and safety and the “jobsworths” who tried to enforce workplace regulations? “The burden of health and safety red tape has become too great,” the coalition government declared in 2011. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was instructed to cut its annual 33,000 spot checks on employers by a third. Its budget and workforce were also cut. “If we try to legislate out all risk,” said the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, Chris Grayling (yes, him), in 2013, “we will lose jobs to other places.”

Local authorities, which share statutory responsibility with the HSE for regulating workplaces, were cut yet more dramatically. Their spot checks fell by 97 per cent and 53 councils stopped them entirely. The number of inspectors was halved. Enforcement notices against employers fell by two-thirds.

Now, desperate to revive the economy while minimising risks of coronavirus infection, a Tory government will, according to Boris Johnson, have “spot inspections” to ensure “businesses… look after their workers”. But inspections need inspectors and, with his usual inattention to detail, Johnson hasn’t noticed they no longer exist.

In the line of fire

Shocking as the US riots of the past few days are, they come nowhere near the extent and ferocity of the 159 riots that struck the country in what became known as “the long, hot summer” of 1967. In Detroit alone, 43 people died in five days of rioting after police raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar. But even then, I cannot remember so many reports of journalists being arrested or attacked by police. Linda Tirado, an occasional Guardian contributor, was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet while covering the protests in Minneapolis. Doctors have told her she won’t recover sight in that eye.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump accuses “the lamestream media” of fomenting “hatred and anarchy” and producing more “disinformation” than “any foreign country”. Thanks to the First Amendment, the freedom of the US press looks unassailable. But it doesn’t protect journalists from harassment and intimidation.

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Reverse gear

As I predicted here last month, we are entering a new age of the car. Graphs presented at the government’s tea-time press conferences show car use rising back towards normal while rail, Tube and bus journeys remain at low, lockdown levels. In China, car journeys are now only 10 per cent lower than pre-lockdown, while subway journeys are 50 per cent lower. April car sales were up 4.4 per cent on last year. Here, some car showrooms reported a surge in orders even before they were allowed to reopen. Many come from people who haven’t previously owned cars. The trend, evident since the mid-1990s, for under-35s to eschew cars, could well go into reverse.

Even as we recover from the pandemic, we face, more urgently than ever, the challenge of global heating.

Voting records

Apart from posting these columns, I have contributed only one word to Twitter this year. Re-tweeting a comment that “it’s possible to agree with what Emily Maitlis said about Dominic Cummings on Newsnight [that he “broke the rules” of lockdown] but to also think that she shouldn’t have violated BBC impartiality”, I wrote: “Exactly.” And that is all that needs to be said. Except perhaps that, though Jeremy Paxman later came out as a One-Nation Tory, I could never guess at his voting habits when he presented Newsnight. Whereas I am pretty sure I know how Maitlis votes.

Lotus years

In his Times column, Philip Collins, once Tony Blair’s speechwriter, refers to Labour’s “lotus years” under Jeremy Corbyn. Since I am sure the paper’s sub-editors would have checked that he didn’t mean to write “locust years”, I am puzzling over what Collins can possibly mean. Is he borrowing from Hinduism to convey a belief that, under Corbyn, the party reached a state of divine perfection? Or is he recalling the lotus-eaters of Homer’s Odyssey who lounged about in a stupor doing nothing much?

This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe