Boris Johnson at Covid-19 press conference Boris Johnson at Covid-19 press conference, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Frederick Engels, born 200 years, ago identified the type of disastrous policy pursued by the Johnson government during the pandemic, argues Sean Ledwith

Boris Johnson will not doubt be hoping today’s announcement that the roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine is to commence next week will distract from his shambolic handling of the pandemic up to this point. We can probably expect more blustering and inappropriate rhetoric from him about bugle-blasts and cavalry coming over the hills. Matt Hancock was quick to try to salvage some jingoistic consolation from the news, boasting about Britain being the first developed economy to approve mass vaccination; as if that is supposed to make us forget we also have the worst death rate of the G7 economies.

Yesterday marked another devastating milestone in the story of the Johnson government’s calamitous mismanagement of the pandemic. According to the Office of National Statistics,75 000 people have now lost their lives this year with covid-related illnesses. Predictably, the supine national television news barely mentioned this catastrophe, preferring to use the government’s alternative body count which still comes in with a staggering figure of around 60 000 fatalities. Throughout the crisis, the government has cynically adopted a statistical methodology that consistently delivers a lower tally than the more comprehensive calculation of the ONS.

Good outcome?

According to the ONS, the government ‘s current figure was actually reached just over a month ago. The fact that an additional 15 000 lives have been lost in that period is another damning indictment of the most callous and corrupt government in living memory. Back in the virus first started to take a grip on UK society, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Vallance, claimed that a death toll of 20 000 would represent a good outcome. Even by their own wretched criterion, Johnson and his acolytes, have presided over the most monumental domestic policy failure in postwar British history.

Social murder

Last week many on the left celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Marx’s great collaborator, Frederick Engels. In his classic 1844 study of The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels observed how the callous failure of the ruling class of the time to provide adequate public health protection for the bulk of the population amounted to what he termed social murder:

When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder. 

Third wave?

It is not difficult to see parallels between the criminal negligence described by Engels and the sequence of preventable blunders committed by this government throughout the pandemic. From the failure to provide sufficient PPE and to secure care homes in the first wave, to the stubborn refusal to close schools and universities in the second wave, Johnson and his advisors have persistently put profits ahead of public health.

Today marks the end of the second national lockdown and the point at which virtually 99% of the country is moved into tier 2 or 3 restrictions. Yesterday’s daily death toll of over 600 will leave many fearing such a relaxation which allows shops in all areas to reopen during the busiest purchasing season of the year is just one more reckless Tory roll of the dice. The ongoing and conspicuously under-reported covid crisis in schools adds to a widespread perception that the Tories’ habitual prioritisation of profits over public health is paving the way for a third wave of the pandemic that will kill thousands more before the vaccine becomes widely available.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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