Boris Johnson. Photo: Flickr/Number10 Boris Johnson. Photo: Flickr/Number10

As the government fails its own tests and scrambles to ‘get the economy going again’, we must demand that people are put before profit, writes Cameron Panting

The government claims to have hit its target of 100,000 tests over a 24 hour period by the end of April, but on closer inspection some creative accountancy is visible here. The target was announced as the government was coming under increasing pressure following a series of missed targets, and it was becoming clear that the UK was way behind international standards. On Wednesday, they were only halfway there, and so it looked unlikely they would manage it. Desperate to avoid embarrassment, they frantically expanded eligibility while key workers in hospitals and care homes were still struggling to access tests. They also changed the way testing is counted, including tests that had just been posted out, to massage the figures. It’s also worth noting that a very large proportion of the tests counted are re-tests.

What this shows is that the government is far more concerned with appearing to have control of the situation, than actually actioning the right policies. But the Prime Minister’s ‘boosterish’ (the media’s innuendo for outright lying) speech on Thursday, claiming the government has done a good job so far, was far from convincing, so now they are moving their own goalposts to cover their failures.

On 17 March, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, suggested that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a ‘good outcome’ – we have moved beyond this already, and if you include estimated deaths outside of hospital (and why wouldn’t you?), then we have already moved well past double that amount. Either the Chief Scientific Adviser’s data projections were way off, he just conjured the figure out of thin air, or he’s right, and what has happened is a ‘bad outcome’. But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so – he declared on Thursday that we ‘avoided catastrophe’ by not hitting the worst-case scenario 500,000 deaths. That the government’s initial herd-immunity policy was less bothered about that outcome wasn’t mentioned. And now another target has been altered, pre-empting failure; the government have changed their previously stated aim of stopping a second peak to stopping a second peak ‘that would overwhelm the NHS’, giving far more leeway.

So how are they going to stop the virus re-emerging? The government has briefed that it aims to keep R (how many people are being infected by each person with the virus) below 1. The number of deaths they are willing to accommodate each day, however, was not set out. The former Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King has said that to stop a second wave, R would need to well below 0.6, but suggested that the government was softening its approach and maybe moving back to a herd-immunity strategy. But the Prime Minister’s mates are briefing to the press that he favours a more ‘South Korea style’ approach going forward. This would mean not just keeping R below one, but pushing it down towards zero so that we can test and trace effectively, and isolate the virus when necessary.

We should take this with a pinch of salt. Johnson is clearly rattled by public criticism around the crisis, and will be desperately trying to gain favour. Given that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is chomping at the bit to get out of the lockdown, and that Johnson is not generally inclined to let down the rampantly neoliberal elements of his party (just look at his cabinet), it seems unlikely that most lockdown measures will be allowed to continue for much longer.

But even if he does push this policy, and tries to emulate his idol Winston Churchill and stand up to his cabinet in a time of crisis, it is not clear that this Tory government is capable of following it through. To commit to keeping R at rock bottom, our test and trace capacities will have to be ramped up considerably, and our recent record doesn’t bode well. We would also have to stay in a high level of lockdown (maybe even increase measures) for quite a lot longer than similar European countries have done, as the number of deaths per day will have to be very low to test and trace effectively. It seems more likely that the government will pretend to do what South Korea did, while actually retaining a longer-term herd-immunity strategy.

This is all as the UK moves towards having more deaths relating to coronavirus than anywhere else in the world. At time of writing, the UK is third behind the United States and Italy, and looks set to overtake Italy soon. Adjusted for population size, of countries with a population of over 10 million, the UK is fourth, and is at an earlier stage of the crisis than those countries with more deaths. Considering there are 159 countries in the world, the United States is much bigger than us, and the European countries with similar numbers had less time to prepare, I think it is fair to say we have one of the worst records in the world.

This is particularly unforgivable, since we have one of the largest economies in the world, with far better infrastructure than most. Boris was keen to point out on Thursday that variable data gathering in different countries makes it difficult to compare, but with most estimates putting the number of coronavirus related deaths in the UK at double the government figures, we are underestimating, not overestimating the impact.

Never mind all that though, the papers, television media, big business, Tory donors, and many Tory (and Labour) MPs are pushing for us to exit the lockdown as soon as possible, to ‘get the economy going again’. That profits are being put ahead of people is unsurprising, but watch out for a concerted attempt to conflate ‘the economy’ and ‘people’s livelihoods’. We need to be clear about the difference between the two – people’s livelihoods can be maintained and built on without unnecessarily lifting lockdown measures or bailing out big business.

These are political decisions, as much as the government likes to say they are just ‘guided by the science’. That there is going to be huge state intervention going forwards is certain. The question is who will that intervention be for? Neoliberal states have always claimed that state intervention is bad, while happily using it to back the interests of capital, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The arguments moving forward will be less about austerity vs spending, and more about where the state should intervene.

But we shouldn’t just wait and see what the government does. Almost every forward step this government has made during the crisis has only been after sustained pressure from the ground. The public, most notably health workers, have been setting the agenda, and are a big reason that the UK public favours lockdown measures far more than most countries. Pressure needs to continue to be put on the government regarding PPE and testing, but a much more concerted effort with regards wages and protection for workers needs to be started. We have seen some strikes, and the initial push for wage protection was significant, but if we are going to keep measures in place and save lives going forward, state intervention must be far, far higher than what Sunak and the rest of the Tory party have in mind. We also must resist any attempt to quit the lockdown early; even the Institute for Government thinks the government’s five tests do not go far enough.

That the government is so desperate to get us back to work exposes the value of our labour. So let’s use that power to demand what we deserve:

  • Schools should not open before the summer holidays. A national childcare service should be set up to co-ordinate care effectively so we don’t rely on schools and parents don’t have to pay extortionate childcare fees.
  • Key industries should be nationalised, particularly those related to care, infrastructure and supply lines. A national industry for expanded community healthcare should be set up, both for dealing with coronavirus and other more long-term health crises that are going to be exacerbated by this crisis. Private hospitals should be requisitioned.
  • A much higher minimum wage should be implemented. Those that have continued to work throughout the crisis are often the lowest-paid workers in society, and many of those who have lost their jobs will be taking a massive pay cut in taking the jobs now available to them.
  • Pay should be increased for all workers who are putting themselves in danger for the good of society.
  • Social security should be increased so that it is possible to live on it. The number of unemployed will only continue to go up.
  • Anyone earning below the real living wage should have private debt wiped / overdraft fees halted.
  • Renters need to be protected and should be allowed to take rent holidays.
  • There should be long term re-skilling strategies for workers who have lost their jobs in industries that will struggle to bounce back (hospitality, events etc.), or industries that will need to be kept scaled back to deal with the climate crisis (air travel for instance).
  • Food delivery services, specifically for over 65s should be expanded. Right now, delivery slots are limited.
  • There should be price controls on essential items.
  • Health and safety regulations and enforcement on employers should be ramped up. Any business flouting these rules should be fined by an amount that actually affects them.
  • Draconian strike laws should be lifted.
  • Any money given to businesses should be conditional on support for workers.
  • Civil liberties should be protected. Enforcement of business closure, decent social security, and adequate health and safety measures are far more important than people going for a walk in the park. The contact-tracing app should be secure and run by the state, not private enterprises.
  • No scapegoating of minorities in relation to coronavirus.
  • Coronavirus should not be used as a pretext to ramp up tensions with other countries.

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Cameron Panting

Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.

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