Boris addresses the nation, 23 March 2020. Photo: 10 Downing Street via youtube Boris addresses the nation, 23 March 2020. Photo: 10 Downing Street via youtube

Despite the confident front, Boris’s lockdown address is full of holes and the measures taken are inadequate and behind time, argues Shabbir Lakha

Once again, Britain has today had the biggest rise so far in deaths from coronavirus, 87 in the last 24 hours bringing the death toll to 422. Yet the government continues to display unprecedented levels of incompetence.

‘Follow the rules. Everybody has a responsibility,’ said Matt Hancock at today’s government briefing. This is part of the new strategy the government has pursued since the initial herd immunity plan was exposed for being the social Darwinism that it was. We now do need to stop the spread of the virus – and it’s our responsibility. It’s our fault if the disease keeps spreading.

What lockdown?

The so-called lockdown that the government announced yesterday died on the crowded London underground trains this morning. The rules as it were, which Hancock repeatedly said are ‘crystal clear’, put the onus of deciding whether or not you need to travel for work onto individual people. Because we all know that it’s employees that get to decide whether or not they want to work, or if it’s essential, or what time they need to be in by.

Workers in the construction industry were told they still need to come in. Mike Ashley announced to his employees that Sports Direct and Evans Cycles were in fact essential services and all employees had to come in to work. Hancock had no real answer to what workers are supposed to do if their employers tell them they have to come to work, just a reiteration that people need to follow the rules. The Chief Medical Officer said ’employers are by far being sensible’, and that in lots of workplaces it’s possible to work 2m apart from each other so she ‘encourages employers to spread people around’. This, apparently, is a lockdown.

But of course, even if that were true, how do you socially distance on your commute? Showing just how out of touch the government are with ordinary people, Hancock said people should try and keep 2m apart on the Underground. He then not-so-subtly attacked Sadiq Khan for reducing TfL services to weekend levels.

Sadiq Khan’s equally useless response this morning was not to question why it is that the government is not putting any measures on employers to stop forcing employees to commute, but was to plead with Londoners, who he says are flouting the rules by unnecessarily travelling – at 6am during the rush hour. 500 British Transport Police officers went around tube stations earlier this evening reminding people that they should only be travelling if they need to.

The government has shown once more that its primary concern is safeguarding the economy, which is now forecasted to be entering a recession of at least 2008, and possibly 1930s levels. This is particularly evident in the way construction companies have been allowed to carry on unperturbed. Not because construction workers are able to work at 2m distance from each other as Hancock claimed, but because a huge amount of the investment that Britain’s massively financialised economy relies on is tied up in building projects and the property market.

This is essentially herd immunity without being called it. By not imposing any ‘rules’ on employers but pushing the responsibility onto workers who don’t actually have a choice, the government is letting millions of people continue to get infected and spread the virus. With still no support for the self-employed because according to Rishi Sunak ‘it’s too complicated’, and the meagre and delayed support people can expect from Universal Credit, people don’t have a choice but to carry on working. One freelancer shared on Twitter that he had been in a queue of 10,000 people all day to apply for Universal Credit, only to be locked out once he got in and then placed in a queue of 30,000.

Everything for the NHS – except what it needs

Hancock announced today that almost 12,000 former NHS staff had returned to the frontline in the last week, and next week over 5,000 final year student medics and 12,000 student nurses would be joining as well. The government has also set up an NHS Volunteers scheme, calling on 250,000 people to join the ‘national effort’. In doing so, he ‘saluted’ NHS workers and said he would get them everything they needed.

But it’s way too little and way too late. There are a growing number of doctors and nurses who are now fighting for their lives after contracting the virus. NHS staff have been begging for proper personal protection equipment (PPE) for weeks. They’ve been asking to be tested for weeks. It’s fallen on deaf ears. Hancock has now announced 7.5 million pieces of PPE are available for workers to call a hotline and have delivered to them ‘in a military effort’.

Apart from again the responsibility being on NHS workers to seek out PPE to keep them safe, this is also definitely not nearly enough for NHS staff let alone other key workers, such as cleaners in the NHS and across public spaces, a large proportion of them outsourced, or social care workers, like those in the Oaklands Nursing Home in Hove where over 75% of the elderly residents have apparently contracted the coronavirus. There was also no word on the severe shortage of ventilators or other critical care facilities in the NHS.


There was however, finally a mention of testing. The first mention by the Chief Medical Officer, was for couples to test the ‘strength of feeling’ in their relationships by being in different households. The second was the announcement that the government has ordered 3.5m test kits. Once more, way too little, way too late. Today a person became the first to die from coronavirus contracted within the hospital they were in.

As late as Sunday, Boris Johnson wrote to private research institutions asking to borrow their testing equipment. The WHO’s main advice has been test, test, test. NHS workers should have been tested and regularly from day one, and the wider public should have had mass testing available. The only way we can know and break transmission chains is by being tested.

Judging from the situation in Italy, which we are roughly on the same trend with a two-week lag, things are about to get a lot worse in the coming weeks. This government’s ineptitude has already cost lives and will cost a lot more. We simply cannot rely on them to make the decisions needed to protect us and we have to be organising and demanding and protesting however we can under the circumstances. Workers in Italy and elsewhere have taken it on themselves to strike and force employers and the governments’ hands, we need to start doing the same and more.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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