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Britain’s Covid-19 Crisis: The charge sheet against Johnson is plain – Labour must push for a #ZeroCovid approach.

“Boris Johnson’s Tory government is presiding over a health & economic disaster.”

Paul Atkin, Brent North CLP.

By Paul Atkin, Brent North CLP

100,000 now dead. One of the highest totals in the world. Still in the thick of it.

There is a certain sort of Tory who is either in denial about the severity of Coronavirus, or who sees it as an invigorating social Darwinist challenge that will make our society leaner and fitter as part of the bracing new Brexit Britain by killing off the unproductive elderly; or anyone in the workforce with the sort of “underlying conditions” which might require them to claim sick pay from time to time.

Even as the winter wave and new more infectious variants were forcing the government into a far stricter lockdown last week to sustain their bottom line – avoiding a collapse in the Health Service that could prove fatal to them too – a member of the “COVID Recovery Group” of back bench Tory MPs raged in the Evening Standard about Education Secretary. “Gavin Williamson’s saving grace is that he wanted schools to stay open but he was crushed by the Health Department and Cabinet Office. If he had more clout he could have told Health to f*** off.”

Telling Health to “f*** off” indeed.

SAGE told the government before New Year that – with the new infectious variant – it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 unless schools were shut. They nevertheless pressed on regardless until slightly beyond the last minute; closing most schools down a day after they had partially reopened. However, unlike in the Spring, they have kept Nurseries open, and initially widened the essential worker list so that more kids could come in. Trying to accelerate even as they were pressing on the brake. The effect was that three or four times as many were in by the end of the first week back; requiring another screeching u turn to get the number down again. With a more infectious virus, and looser restrictions than in the Spring, the trajectory of infections is unlikely to come down rapidly, even if the vaccination programme hits its targets.

This illustrates why Boris Johnson’s Tory government is presiding over a health and economic disaster. Influenced by the sort of libertarian, economy first thinking that sees human life in instrumental terms – and makes a hard nosed calculation that those likely to die are disproportionately not people like them, which allows them to use phrases like “take it on the chin” with a certain devil may care insouciance – they have sought to “balance” economic concerns with health concerns. No such balance is possible. Attempts to reopen the economy before the virus is eliminated can’t fire on all cylinders even before the virus gets back out there and starts spreading wildly again. So we have a sort of macabre hokey cokey approach which prolongs the crisis on all fronts.

Its hard to imagine a Labour government doing half as badly, or being give a tenth as much indulgence – either by the media or the opposition.

Tony Blair – who is advising Matt Hancock – made several comments this week in the Evening Standard which are both revealing and characteristically ignore the fundamentals.  He simultaneously drops the bombshell that on current polices it will take “two or three years” to deal with the pandemic – TWO OR THREE YEARS – notes that the UK government has been “behind the curve” every step of the way, then lets Johnson off the hook; arguing that “no government” has done any better. Really?  New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, China? All these countries have had a COVID elimination strategy; and it has worked. All are now fully active societies with recovering economies. Hard to imagine from here right now, but its never too late to do the right – effective – thing.

The charge sheet against Johnson is plain. Failure to

  • lock down early when they knew what was coming,
  • shut off air travel from well heeled business travelers,
  • use the potential for social mobilisation shown in the rapid growth of local mutual self help groups,
  • set up an effective track and trace system; outsourcing it to SERCO rather than using GPs and local authorities,
  • and, most damning, failure to press on with the initial lock down to the point that infections were so low and rare that an effective track and trace system could have squashed any further outbreaks.

Projections of the decline in infections in mid May indicated that – other things being equal – sticking with the restrictions in the first lockdown could have eliminated domestic infections at some point in June. Instead they thought they could “manage” the situation and “live with” the virus; started lifting the restrictions and allowed the genie back out of the bottle; with the results that are all around us.

At the moment their approach seems to be a variant on the Great Barrington Declaration. They aim to vaccinate the most vulnerable, then remove restrictions to allow the rest of us to take our chances while explicitly ruling out an elimination strategy. Given that vaccination and having had the virus only confers  a certain immunity for a limited time – 5 to 6 months – and vaccinating the entire population will take longer than that, the problem is obvious. This inevitably means that the virus will continue to evolve – probably to be more infectious than it currently is – because that’s how evolution works – unless it is eliminated.

Labour’s policy throughout has been defined by a search for “national consensus”, which has taken the form of tactical criticism on points of detail, but no alternative strategy. At points Keir Starmer was pressing the government from the  wrong side, flagging up an “exit strategy” as the key issue during the first lockdown – rather than an “elimination strategy” within which “exit” would have been implicit – and for schools to open before it was safe to do so. This is in contrast with the approach of the teaching unions – especially the NEU – which have followed the science and put health first. Thousands of Section 44 safety letters generated from a 400,000 strong NEU meeting on the last day of the Xmas break will have helped nudge the government in the right direction. Slightly stronger calls from the front bench now are being driven by just how bad things are getting, but are too often phrased hesitantly. Nurseries should “probably” close, and so on.

This approach helps explain why a recent YouGov Poll showed that far more people blame each other than blame the government. This is absurd. An overwhelming majority of people both support and comply with restrictions brought in to stop infections. Despite mixed messages from the top and the campaigning of anti-lockdown head bangers like Nigel Farage, very, very few are breaking them lightly or rashly. Put bluntly, Boris Johnson is getting away with it – and persisting with a strategy that will cost many, many avoidable deaths – because the opposition is not pushing for the Zero COVID strategy we need to avoid them.

  • This Zero Covid Coalition’s “Stopping the Virus – It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” event at noon on Sunday 24th January should be built widely. Confirmed Speakers are: Diane Abbott MP // Richard Burgon MP // Jeremy Corbyn MP // Howard Beckett , Unite the Union // Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet // Rokhsana Fiaz , Mayor of Newham. Along with other leading scientists, campaigners and activists to be announced.

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