PM Boris Johnson, Westminster, July 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons PM Boris Johnson, Westminster, July 2020. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Alex Snowdon on a persistent Covid-19, feckless Tories and campaigning for carers

The government is in a muddle with its management of the coronavirus crisis. The incoherence is such that it can be difficult to even keep track of what’s happening – never mind make sense of it – but let’s have a go.

The key public health development last week was the growing awareness that infection rates are not falling. There had previously been a general assumption of falling transmission rates. That was clearly the long-term trend (and it was forecast to continue). It would make sense after many weeks of lockdown and it was in line with what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

The progressive lifting of lockdown restrictions was planned in line with such assumptions. On Saturday (1August) there was meant to be another step back towards ‘normality’ with the reopening of more leisure services (from casinos to bowling alleys), the shift to a “go into work if you can” policy and the ending of shielding.

It was trumpeted as when office workers should get back to the office, irrespective of the convenience of home working. There are city centre cafes, takeaways and shops that need frequenting. Home-workers generally don’t grab a sandwich and coffee at Pret or Costa. The government’s priority of ‘re-starting the economy’ must take precedence.

But things have changed. It emerged during the week that rates of deaths and infections are not falling as expected. Indeed the infection rates have increased somewhat. This is very likely a result of the premature lifting of various lockdown restrictions, especially on so-called ‘Super Saturday’ – 4July – when there was a massive push to get people back into shops, pubs, restaurants and so on.

This reversal is, more broadly, a result of the government choosing to reject an elimination strategy. This would have involved keeping key restrictions in place long enough, supported by better implementation of testing and tracing, to reduce the virus to a negligible level. The elimination strategy was rejected in favour of accepting a low level of transmission, which would hopefully become still lower, while encouraging a return to such things as eating out and going shopping. However, the virus has begun to take off again.

If an elimination strategy had been adopted, the testing and tracing would be more focused. If such a strategy had been implemented, brief and localised lockdowns could be introduced when needed. Together with targeted use of ‘test, trace, isolate’, they would have the desired effect of suppressing virus transmission.

The worrying rise in cases has come at the same time as renewed spikes in a number of European countries. The WHO has warned that this should not be framed as a ‘second wave’, but is part of the first wave that had not been properly suppressed. This is most acutely the case in the UK – especially England – where the numbers of daily confirmed cases (and deaths) have remained much higher than in other European countries. We never suppressed it properly in the first place.

It makes a mockery of government attempts to characterise the problem as coming from outside. International travel is a major issue, but there is a greater danger from British travellers to other countries than vice versa. The Tories have tried to play down the extent to which community transmission has continued inside England, both by emphasising these external threats and by using the rhetoric of a possible ‘second wave’ (implying the end of the first wave).

In this context, government policy is inevitably muddled and inadequate. A number of changes intended for Saturday were postponed. That makes sense, but it is only necessary because of previous failures.

Regional restrictions reflect failure

There was also the rushed announcement of the re-introduction of some restrictions affecting large parts of the North West, plus West Yorkshire. Yet the R number is not a great deal lower in other parts of the country.

Such a selective approach breeds resentment (and potentially non-compliance) and merely exposes the failure of the government’s broader strategy. There should indeed be scope for localised restrictions, but these are not meant to cover four or five million people. When that is deemed necessary, something has gone badly wrong.

There was a lot of online mockery of the regional restrictions announced on Thursday night. They are ludicrous in the way that they prohibit reasonably low-risk activities, like meeting with a small number of others in a garden, while allowing higher-risk activities like going to the pub.

The decisive factor seems to be whether money can be made: pubs are a form of economic activity in a way that sitting in the garden is not. This is a vivid reminder of what has guided the government at every stage since 10 May, when Boris Johnson first urged some people to get back to their workplaces.

There are now extremely serious questions about further stages in the government’s plans. The full reopening of schools on 1st September is predicated on falling infection rates. If that isn’t happening, it could be extremely irresponsible to go ahead with something that is guaranteed to increase risks. Leading scientists are now talking about putting the brakes on further changes or even reversing some of those that have already happened – such as allowing pubs, restaurants and cafes to reopen.

This policy chaos also has profound implications for jobs and livelihoods. The planning around ending the furlough scheme has been based on assumptions about when certain sectors of the economy can ‘get back to normal’. If that isn’t possible then thousands of small businesses will close, even more workers than expected will lose their jobs, and there will be further suppression of people’s spending power as a result of job losses and pay cuts.

The public health crisis is worsening after a period of improvement. The real economic impact is starting to be felt on a serious scale. But that could now be even worse precisely because narrow, short-term economic considerations have been prioritised above public health and saving lives. Partial and localised lockdowns will be devastating for communities, as they will be happening without the broader economic support and state intervention familiar in recent months.

This context of policy failure and chaos also explains an uptick in scapegoating. There is a racialised dimension to this in the north west, with many of the areas affected having large Muslim populations and the changes being introduced just in time for Eid celebrations. There is an undercurrent of attaching to blame for those communities, shifting responsibility away from government policy. A similar dynamic is happening with the frequent media shaming of people who are taking advantage of opportunities like going to the beach.

Let’s put the blame where it belongs. That’s a government that introduced lockdown too slowly, failed on testing and tracing, eased lockdown restrictions too quickly, and has consequently created the mess that it is now struggling to deal with.

Applause, but no pay rise

The crisis is generating a range of discontents. One of these is in the area of pay. Many public sector workers have been awarded meagre pay rises, despite the outpouring of public support for our ‘key workers’ during lockdown. This was reflected most visibly in the weekly applause and cheering for NHS and care workers every Thursday evening.

The government evidently hopes that such things are quickly forgotten. A poll last week, though, indicated 69% of people think that all NHS workers should get an early pay rise before the end of 2020. Nurses are particularly angry about their dismal pay offer. They are organising nationwide protests for this Saturday.

Hopefully this weekend’s protests, which deserve support across the labour movement, will be merely the prelude to larger-scale and wider action on pay. Trade unions need to take this very seriously and start organising mass campaigning and workplace organising, not just in the NHS but across whole swathes of the public sector.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).