Onay Kasab
UNITE National Lead Officer

‘Excess deaths in 2022 among worst in 50 years’

This was a BBC headline in January 2023. Let’s put this into context. The UK is the 6th richest country in the world. There are now more billionaires than ever, owning £653 billion between them. The top 350 FTSE companies increased profit margins by over 70% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. They actually made more money despite the pandemic. Yet at the same time, despite all this new wealth, excess deaths have increased. Shamefully, this is about choices.

‘Excess deaths’ simply means that more people than expected have died. Some will rightly point to the impact of the pandemic and the fact that current figures may be below pandemic levels. But here is the harsh truth. Excess deaths existed before the pandemic. That’s right – despite being the 6th richest country in the world, people die needlessly. They do not die by accident. They die because of the choices made by those who run society. A huge number of excess deaths are linked to pensioner deaths in the colder weather in winter months. It is shameful that the 6th richest country in the world chooses not to ensure that the vulnerable are kept warm in the winter months.

The choices made by governments and pharmaceutical firms before and during the pandemic impacted the level of deaths. Leaving aside issues such as the disastrous decision to place hospital patients with Covid into care homes and the scandal of unavailable and poor standard PPE, the fact is that governments and pharmaceutical firms chose not to invest in vaccines until it was too late. Put quite simply, it was not cost effective. If you cannot guarantee a pandemic, you cannot guarantee a profit. That was a choice.

The current figures for excess deaths come at a time of deep crisis for the NHS. Patients are dying outside hospitals where ambulances are waiting in long lines to get into Accident and Emergency departments. Patients are dying needlessly. Paramedics have given heartrending testimonies of having to watch people die, knowing that all that was needed was to get them into a hospital. Whatever the exact figures, the numbers are significant. It is happening. Even worse, it is happening because of conscious choices by government about how the NHS is run.

Government response to the latest crisis is not just to shoot the messenger – it is to attempt to wipe it from existence. The trade union campaign calling for fair pay for NHS staff is inextricably linked to the wider campaign to save the NHS. You cannot have a safe health system when pay is so low that recruitment levels are unsafe – only 25% of planned shifts have the correct number of staff. The government response is to attack those unions bringing the message with yet more repressive legislation.

This leads to my conclusion. The government minister proposing this legislation stated that the primary role of government is to protect its citizens. I couldn’t agree more. Except that in the case of this government it’s a lie. The primary role of this government is proven to be to protect the wealth of the already wealthy while the working class, the poor, pensioners, students and the disabled pay the cost of any crisis.

In rethinking civil society, there will be the temptation to come up with a very long list – the environment, racism, sexism, poverty, housing, to name but a few. But ultimately, all come back to the same point. The aim must be to reorganise society so that it is not run for the sole benefit of the rich and wealthy. The consequences of not making the change are continued excess deaths – be it through poverty, war or environmental destruction.

Onay Kasab – UNITE National Lead Officer