Escape through testing. Graphic: Piklist Escape through testing. Graphic: Piklist

Lindsey German on the spiralling Covid crisis and how class remains our compass point

Do you remember the public information posters in July which urged us to ‘save summer’ alongside pictures of contented couples raising a glass of wine or two? The government obviously doesn’t. It can’t understand where the spike in coronavirus cases is coming from. Indeed it seems the people most surprised by the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the last few weeks are the government and its loyal devotees. Dido Harding, Tory baroness with the opposite of the Midas touch, expressed shock that the return to schools has brought about much higher demand for testing and tracing. You wouldn’t think that she was in charge of testing, and so responsible for the abysmal lack of it.

Then there’s Boris Johnson, who has spent the summer bragging and boasting about world beating solutions to the pandemic and encouraging people to get out of their houses and enjoy themselves, now talking about a second wave hitting as though it has nothing to do with him. Matt Hancock adopts sombre tones to warn us of a national crisis and a tipping point and says that people have got more relaxed over the summer and now have to get back to following regulations.

But it is he and fellow ministers who have been encouraging, even urging, relaxation and not following the regulations.

They are now shocked that the virus is spreading on the same scale as it did last February, just before the first wave hit. But they are still extremely reluctant to take the measures necessary because their main focus is the economy rather than health. We have had the rule of six and a series of local lockdowns – actually now affecting around thirteen million people – but they have placed emphasis on limiting home and family gatherings while pubs and restaurants (not to mention the grouse moors) stay open.  

The official narrative for weeks was that the new cases were mostly young people and they would therefore not badly affected, that most transmission was in private homes, and that the number of hospital admissions was low. That is all changing. We are told that much of the problem is now in the ‘hospitality industry’ and that cases are spreading to older people, with much higher levels of hospital cases.

Who could possibly have predicted that? Well millions of us in fact, from independent SAGE advisers to the dogs in the street. Look at the timeline for rising cases and it coincides with the most popular phase of the government promoted ‘Eat out to Help Out’. It then increases this month with the return to schools and it will get rocket boosters over the next two weeks as the universities return.

Already some scientific advisers are urging a second lockdown on the government. But it will be very reluctant to go down this road. From day one in this crisis it has hesitated to do anything which will harm business interests. So instead there has been a determined push to get people back into pubs and restaurants, back to work and back to school. This has been coupled with a total inability to develop a serious testing regime – hence the sharp increase in cases.

Typically from this despicable government it now attempts to blame those who don’t observe the rules or who go on pub crawls. Plans to bring in tougher fines for those who don’t self-isolate when required are part of an approach which has seen government deliberately encourage relaxation of the rules, but also refuse to take responsibility for the consequences.

Some people will always behave irresponsibly in conditions of a health crisis. But frankly the worst pub crawler or party goer would struggle to match the irresponsibility, the ineptitude and corruption of this government, which blames everyone else for its shortcomings.

It isn’t good enough for Keir Starmer to say that he will support measures taken by the government, when we have seen that it cannot be trusted to safeguard health. There should be a return to home working where possible, online teaching in the universities, closure of schools where there are outbreaks. Testing must be taken out of the hands of Hapless Harding and her private industry friends. Test centres are run by Sodexo, G4S and Serco – the giant privateers who run prisons who have proved so inept in the past. Lighthouse Labs which analyse the tests have private involvement through AstraZeneca, GSK and US pharma company PerkinElmer. Amazon and Boots help distribute the test kits. Serco gets nearly half a million for its contact tracing system, which has proved near useless.

Many of these contracts and others have been allocated without competitive tender, and the crisis has been a windfall for these private companies, while the NHS lacks funds at every turn. Labour and the unions must fight the government on all these issues, not assume that it is acting for the public good. The opposite is the case.

No going back to business as usual

At root, much of the government response is based on support for a system that works well for its own class, but which consigns the mass of people to a life of inequality, hard and often meaningless work, and ways of living and working which are damaging to the planet. A new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal, which consulted over 50,000 people, concludes however that the public are way ahead of the government on what they want coming out of the Covid-19 crisis.

Few want a return to business as usual and many want more flexible working, shorter hours, a greener set of policies. They wanted jobs guarantees and a majority were for a guaranteed monthly income. Perhaps most interesting was that these aims and others which would improve quality of life were shared regardless of age, sex, ethnicity or class. The desire for fundamental change is widespread and shows a growing dissatisfaction with ‘normal life’.

These findings tend to cut through the usual culture wars or age divisions commentary, which dominates so much of what passes for political thinking. While there surely are such divisions in British society, and they can sometimes lead to reactionary conclusions, there are also many values and opinions which are widely held across society, most obviously to do with support for the NHS, opposition to insecure job contracts, and recognition of the need for better and cheaper housing.

Where the divisions over some issues are starker, they are often as a result of relentless scapegoating by government and media, for example of asylum seekers and immigrants, or of travellers. The unprecedented situation since March has led to the development of widespread collective values, as people recognise only such responses can deal with the social crisis.

Not surprising that one government line of attack is to try to repeat this scapegoating and blame individuals or groups for the crisis. But this isn’t about black versus white or old versus young. It requires a collective response arguing that working people as a whole are not going to pay for this crisis or sacrifice their lives in the name of profit.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.