Boris Johnson is lifting the lockdown when it is patently unsafe to do so, and the opposition's going along with it, writes Shabbir Lakha
The latest “package” of measures that the government announced on Tuesday will effectively mark the end of the lockdown in England. As of 4 July, pubs, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, museums, hairdressers and other places will be reopened and social distancing will be reduced to 1 metre from 2, and as of 6 July, shielding measures for the most vulnerable people will begin to be lifted.
While Boris Johnson claims that the government is meeting its five tests, in reality lifting the lockdown at the moment is wholly irresponsible and is once again based on short term economic motives over science. The reproductive rate of the virus, R, is according to the government between 0.7 and 0.9 in all regions of the UK – however just ten days ago it had briefly jumped above 1 in some parts, particularly the north east of England.
The government had initially said that the R rate would have to be well below 1 before the lockdown could be lifted. We can look at Germany to see why. Between Friday and Sunday, Germany’s R rate jumped from 1.06 to 2.88 and the outbreaks have largely been centred around workplaces. South Korea has now just confirmed a second wave of the virus and at the end of May, had to begin closing schools days after they reopened because of immediate outbreaks. These are both countries that took more stringent measures at a much earlier stage and have had robust test-trace-isolate policies compared to Britain.
So where on earth Boris Johnson gets the gall to tell us the worst is over and we can begin to resume normal life at this moment, I’m not quite sure. His press conference brought on an eerie sense of déjà vu as he told us “there will be local outbreaks” with another your-loved-ones-will-die, take-it-on-the-chin tone.
There were 280 deaths from coronavirus in the UK on Tuesday, up from 15 the previous day and the highest daily death toll in over 2 weeks. With only 5% of the population confirmed to have antibodies, the R rate so close to 1 and having seen how quickly it almost tripled in Germany to an exponential rate once again there is no logical explanation for lifting the lockdown – other than getting people working and spending again at a risk to their lives.
The government’s other tests are far from being met either. The idea that the NHS was protected from being overwhelmed is simply a lie. There were a number of major incidents in hospitals unable to cope with the number of Covid patients in March and April around the country; the Nightingale hospitals which were included in the data on free capacity in hospitals turned out to be a complete sham that barely treated anyone; and as we now know the burden on the NHS was largely lifted by deliberately releasing up to 25,000 patients into care homes without testing which precipitated the deadly crisis in care homes.
By the government’s own initial plan for easing the lockdown in relation to the R figure, we’re now on the third step of lockdown easing while the R figure is still at a point where the first step shouldn’t have yet been taken.
The ‘guidance’ as it were remains unclear and people will rightly be confused. It is maintained that you can only meet in groups of 6 people outdoors and socially distanced, but you can go to a pub or a cinema, get on a packed out train and go to work. The change in social distancing guidelines from 2 metres to 1 “with mitigating circumstances” is a farce. It is no secret that Tory MPs and big business have been pressuring the government to reduce the social distance people need to observe to make it more feasible to get back to business. This is also the same government that told people face masks were pointless not so long ago. Suddenly, “the science” says you can be one metre apart with a face mask and it’s the same as being two metres apart.
But again, the government is setting up the narrative to absolve itself of any responsibility for the inevitable spike in the infection. Everything is up to you as an individual to consider “where possible”. Throughout the lockdown, businesses were told to have socially distanced workplaces where possible, to not fire their workers where possible. People were told to stay at home where possible and avoid using public transport where possible. So now we should stay 2 metres apart where possible (but 1 metre is ok), we should definitely go to the pub or a restaurant or to shop but stay alert where possible, enjoy yourself but don’t overdo it where possible.
Essentially, the government wants you to know that although it’s lifting the lockdown and making you go back to work and telling you it’s ok to go to public places to spend your money – even though Patrick Vallance at the conference said he’d be surprised if we have a vaccine before spring next year – if you get infected, if there’s an outbreak, it’s your fault.
The government’s justification for not going into lockdown earlier, which it is now thought would have saved two thirds or more of the almost 50,000 lives now lost to the virus, was that behavioural science suggested the public couldn’t handle it. Yet for three months, the public has shown that it can not only follow the rules but go above and beyond. But now that the lockdown is being lifted, the blame will be on individuals if they go along with it, and more importantly, the safeguards for people to choose to not go along with it are being removed.
The shielding measures for over 2 million high-risk people are going to start being lifted from 6 July. From 1 August, they will no longer be able to claim Universal Credit for shielding and employers will be under no obligation to pay them sick pay, furlough them or let them work from home if they don’t want to. The incredible callousness of the government forcing vulnerable people to choose between risking their lives or paying the rent is shameful.
And in the midst of it all, Sir Keir Starmer has welcomed Boris Johnson’s strategy and says he knows the government is “trying to do the right thing”. Apparently, having the highest death toll in Europe which was completely avoidable, failing repeatedly to take the measures needed to protect people and mitigate the crisis, and now lifting the lockdown while it is so obviously unsafe to do so counts as doing the right thing. I’m not sure what Starmer thinks is the wrong thing.
This must be the effective opposition that Corbyn’s critics said the Labour Party wasn’t providing under his leadership. That this coincides with Labour MPs attacking the National Education Union, that has been at the forefront of resisting the government, and an acceleration in suspensions of Corbyn-supporting members, shows that Labour has well and truly lurched to the right and intends to stay there.
It should be clearer than ever that at this moment, there is no parliamentary opposition to the government at a time when it faces the biggest crisis in at least a century and is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. If we want to protect lives, save jobs and ensure it’s not us that are paying for the crisis, then we’re going to have to lead the resistance ourselves.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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