Coronavirus Coronavirus, Photo: Pixabay

The government is effectively continuing to pursue herd immunity. The movement must fight for a zero-Covid strategy, argues Chris Nineham

The deadly crisis in Britain is not the inevitable result of the pandemic or the spread of the new strain of the virus. It is not just the result of government incompetence, manifestly real though that is. It is the outcome of a set of callous policies deliberately pursued by the Tories. A glance at the international situation makes this absolutely clear.

Britain now has the fifth highest number of total excess deaths anywhere in the world from Covid-19. The four countries above it in the league all have populations at least twice the size of Britain, all but one are bigger than that by many multiples.

The result is Britain has the third highest death rate in the world, worse than Brazil and the US. The vast majority of countries have had less than half the number of cases and less than one eighth the number of deaths. Countries that have pursued Zero-Covid policies like New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam have had fewer than 40 deaths.

It is not just that the British government was famously late to respond to the pandemic in the first place, it has been behind the international curve at key moments throughout the crisis, and consistently premature in lifting measures.

It has failed to set up a functioning test and trace system and, as a result of its obsession with the private sector, hasn’t created a joined up response connecting local services and national agencies. This will likely impact on its ability to roll out the vaccine. Even if that programme is a success on current trends tens of thousands more will die in the interim.

Herd immunity lives on

These failings are partly the result of the toxic effects of decades of a particularly virulent neoliberal regime. An important autumn survey showed that Britain was the ‘sick man, woman and child’ of Europe when it comes to health systems and measures even before Covid appeared.

More immediately it is the result of the fact that Britain is one of a handful of countries around the world that have effectively adopted a herd immunity policy. The aim has been to limit the spread of the disease to levels that the NHS can deal with but keep society as open as possible. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and other senior health officials were public about this at the beginning of the pandemic and then amended their rhetoric under fire from hundreds of scientists.

The result has been catastrophic, even by the inhuman calculus of the herd immunity crowd. As economic policy, it’s a flop. The FT reported recently that the UK is predicted to be one of the last major economies to recover from the Covid hit. More urgently, hospitals across the country are on the brink of collapse while the virus is still surging. 

The policy however lives on. Undeterred by the disaster all around him, Chris Whitty said once again in a recent briefing that some thousands of regular deaths are ‘acceptable’. The approach was confirmed by Matt Hancock a day later when he rejected a Zero-Covid strategy and said that eradication of the disease was “impossible” and the goal instead should be to reduce it to “manageable” proportions.

Ministers and government scientists alike are blaming the current emergency on the ‘new strain’, as if this too was an act of god. But it is no coincidence that a new strain should emerge in a country that has allowed the virus maximum room to circulate.

Sabotaging lockdown

Despite the emergency the government is still pursuing deadly policies. It is in fact actively undermining the lockdown. Teachers and other school workers across the country are warning that as a result of new rules and new definitions of key workers, many schools are 50% fuller than they were during the first lockdown.

The suspicion must be that the government is doing this partly to punish the NEU for forcing school closures. But the problem goes deeper. Nurseries, places of worship and a much wider range of workplaces than during the last lockdown are open. The result is many more people travelling and meeting. The lockdown is being fatally weakened.

Meanwhile, having supported the government slavishly pretty much throughout the crisis, the Labour leadership is completely ineffective faced with the gathering emergency.

Push for action

The stand taken by teachers last weekend forced the government to close the schools and showed that concerted collective action by workers can shape the situation. Education workers are going to need full support in their continuing efforts to restrict the numbers going into schools and ensure safe bubbling at school. This needs to be accompanied by increased support for families isolating.

It is now time for other unions to start pushing for a programme to deal with the emergency. This means imposing a Zero-Covid strategy on a government that is simply refusing to act effectively.

Nurseries need to be closed except for key workers’ children, all inessential work must be ended with workers on full furlough, hotels need to be opened for the homeless, extra staff found for the NHS and ICU beds requisitioned from private hospitals.

Activists across the movement need to start pushing for these kinds of measures as a matter of urgency.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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