As this is written, the Tory UK government is putting in place in England further local lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings, calling for people to work from home again if possible, and is apparently considering a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ national lockdown, writes Phil Hearse.
The rapidly changing rules in England for social gathering, mask wearing and social distancing are causing both confusion and resentment. But they are not stopping the second wave of the virus, which is well underway, with the UK government’s chief scientific advisor predicting 50,00 new cases a day in two weeks’ time. Scotland and other devolved administrations have clearer and tighter rules but dependent as they are on the failing UK-wide privatised testing system and the UK Treasury, the virus is spreading everywhere
At the same time the cascade of redundancies, the ending of the furlough scheme and the removal of the total block of evictions for rent arrears are combining to create the conditions for massive poverty and homelessness by Christmas. Already millions of UK citizens face food poverty, described by one expert as a national health emergency.
The new spike in cases and hospital admissions shows the failure of the Johnson government’s strategy. Confusion and resentment is being capitalised on by conspiracy campaigners and anti-vax groups, who held a second rally in London last Saturday, under the banner of “Resist and Act for Freedom”.
Fascist groups were present and probably provided the ‘bodyguards’ that star speaker Kate Shemanari claimed had defended her from the police. The hard right sympathies of Shemanari are fully on display on her Twitter page, with multiple claims that the police were soft on Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and her anti-abortion declamations in Trafalgar Square.
Far right and anti-vax conspiracy theories bleed into a resurgent discourse from more ‘respectable’ sources, arguing for ‘living with the virus’, as opposed to trying to supress it. This is the wrong message contained in one of two counterposed letters to the government. The letter signed by 28 scientists including prominent advocates of right wing ideas alongside the Economic Insight consultancy is awful. Their message is clear: attempting to supress the virus has failed and is impossible, therefore the government should try a more targeted approach, concentrating on people in care homes and people with underlying health conditions. The right wing academic message is clear: no more lockdowns, we have to get on with ‘our’ lives (or more precisely the lives of care home workers, front line workers and healthcare professionals).
A similar line of argument is also used by Simon Jenkins in his Guardian column on 21September. He says:
“This virus is clearly endemic until a vaccine is developed. That seems inevitable. It is not inevitable that the government cripples the British economy beyond anything experienced previously, curbing personal freedom and inflicting misery and mental stress on millions.”
Jenkins irresponsibly minimises the number of Covid-19 deaths, arguing it is really much less than April or March. But we are at the beginning of the second wave, by November the situation will look very different. Hospital appointments in England, including important consultations and operations for cancer patients, are being cancelled, and hospitals told to free up beds for an expected surge of Covid-19 patients in two weeks’ time.
The lethality of the coronavirus is being downplayed by a widening reactionary alliance of Conservative MPs, right-leaning scientists and consultancies and business groups – backed up of course by the Telegraph and Daily Mail, running daily anti-lockdown stories. And the Sun, following the same line, says of the presentation by government scientists on September 21:
“But nothing in the speculative, doom-laden charts Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance offered up yesterday remotely justifies a repeat of the freedom- crushing restrictions imposed in March.”
Playing on frustration and understandable fears among low-paid and zero hours contract workers, not to mention people frustrated by not being allowed to socialise as they would like, opposition to further lockdowns and restrictions is understandable. But it is quite wrong-headed.
For example, the Daily Mails insists only five per cent of infections are caused by transmission in pubs. Even if true, this is beside the point. Increasing community transmission of the virus among younger people creates the conditions for a spike in deaths among the vulnerable – the elderly, the sick, transport and other essential workers, disabled people and NHS and care home workers. Effective shielding among these groups is impossible because they inevitably have multiple hospital and other medical appointments and will inevitably meet with younger relatives. Widespread community transmission plus shielding vulnerable groups won’t work – it is another version of the discredited ‘herd immunity’ strategy.
Deaths have been common among people not in vulnerable groups, and the long-term effects on people who have ‘recovered’ can be devastating. The objective of suppressing the virus is correct. But if it is necessary, before a useable vaccine is found, to have new national lockdown and anti-transmission measures in England, then it has to be done properly as the new rules in Scotland make clear in going far beyond those of the Tories in England. England needs to follow such national lockdown measures and not ‘on-again, off-again’, local restrictions which are increasingly targeting poorer and predominantly Asian areas.
Social distancing and mask-wearing rules need to be tightened, made more uniform and enforced. For example, I have experienced pubs on the edge of Bolton, national leader in community transmission, where social distancing between tables in enforced, but staff do not wear masks – and will tell you that it is ‘not compulsory’. Mask wearing in local shopping malls is also not enforced. Everybody can see the illogicalities in the partial system of jumbled rules. If people are not convinced rules are necessary and fairly enforced, they will not obey them. The imposition of huge fines in England is utterly counter-productive, particularly creating a perverse incentive not to get tested.
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South, claims that Bolton’s sky-high rate of infection is caused by people thinking that the virus is a fake – in other words accepting conspiracy theories. This explanation may have an element of truth, but it is much more likely to be connected with the poverty, run-down housing and multi-generational households in Bolton, particularly but not exclusively in areas where the Asian community lives.
Test and trace
Test and trace only works if it is a massive coordinated joined-up project linked into public health services, with tests that give a quick result and enough local people to track contacts rapidly, as pioneered at the University of Illinois. The testing system needs to be publicly owned and deliverable locally rather than through the UK wide privatised system of online gateways, test centres and large scale labs delivered by the likes of Deloittes, Serco and G4S. Its effectiveness is already patently very limited. This is why the government’s est strategy is failing – not enough testing capacity, not enough quick tests, and not enough follow-up.
But to carry out any effective strategy to supress and eliminate the virus means continuing the furlough scheme, government economic support to small businesses and effective measures to defend front line workers, negotiated with the unions. Further UK government Treasury spending and borrowing on a massive scale is needed to enable further national restrictions. Either there will be a massive new phase of restrictions in face of the resurgence of the virus, or there will be a new mass death event, with the SAGE groups prediction of a possible 85,000 deaths this winter coming true.
Should we be in this position.? No, it was not inevitable and could have been avoided if the UK government had not wasted weeks in February and March before bringing in a lockdown. Then the economy and education could have gradually been reopened with mass testing and virus transmission minimised. But we have to start where we are.
The demonstrators in Trafalgar Square have capitalised on legitimate fears that civil liberties are being overridden, and they have picked up left-wing slogans – “We are the 99%”, and the ‘elite’ is exploiting the vast majority.
John Harris has pointed to the authoritarian way that the ‘rule of six’ and other social distancing rules are being applied by the police, with thousands of fines handed out, disproportionately to minority ethnic people. The way forward is not police repression, but clear rules, coordination across the whole of the British state between the UK government and the stronger-minded devolved administrations, new major restrictions to prevent spread of the virus, adequate defence of essential workers (including teachers) and winning the overwhelming majority of people to support of this strategy – including by new economic measures that ensure families can be fed and their basic expenses met. Half measures and confusion are storing up a new mass tragedy.