The government’s push to reopen pubs, restaurants and much else this weekend is irresponsible and premature, writes Alex Snowdon
Today is the day for the biggest and most important reopening measures England has seen so far. It is a huge turning point in lifting the lockdown, as pubs, restaurants, cafes, hotels and much more are able to do business again. It comes as fresh reports suggest that London’s R number may have risen above 1. Other regions are thought to be not far behind.
Business is the key word here. This is about the economic interests of business, not people’s welfare. It is economic considerations, not public health priorities or scientific evidence, that guides the timing. Even on those narrow measures it could prove disastrous, if a renewal of coronavirus leads to a necessary return to restrictions on economic activity.
It is true, and very welcome, that the numbers of those dying, hospitalised or infected have fallen dramatically since the peak (though daily reported death tolls are still in three figures). The lockdown mostly worked. But coronavirus has not been suppressed. It has not been pushed down to the level where it is clearly safe to make such drastic changes as we are seeing this weekend.
The global pandemic continues. Some countries are seeing rising numbers or renewed spikes in virus transmission. This makes the kickstarting of international travel highly irresponsible. It isn’t merely risky because of people travelling from elsewhere to this country, but because travellers from the UK can spread the virus to their destinations.
It is well-established that busy indoor environments like pubs are high-risk for infections. For example, over two weeks ago Japan reported a resurgence of the virus linked to Tokyo’s nightlife, with nightclub workers especially vulnerable. In this country, many pubs appear to be choosing to remain closed for now, though financial pressures mean that this may prove extremely short-lived and limited.
These measures are accompanied by deeply irresponsible rhetoric. Boris Johnson has declared “I want to see bustle” and teetotaller Rishi Sunak has declared “I can’t wait to get back to the pub” (as well as tweeting “Pop the kettle on”, suggesting the pub is not a regular haunt for the chancellor). This, together with ridiculous media buzz phrases like ‘Super Saturday’ and ‘Independence Day’, is actively encouraging people to go out and socialise.
The public mood is largely very cautious. Repeated surveys and polls have indicated widespread public scepticism about lifting lockdown restrictions. The latest polling suggests a majority are uncomfortable with things like pubs, cinemas and restaurants reopening, travelling on public transport, and foreign holidays.
Yet this finds little, if any, expression, on Labour’s front bench. Since the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary, there are no voices of opposition in the shadow cabinet to a premature ‘return to normal’.
Keir Starmer broadly welcomed the changes happening this weekend. Anneliese Dodds, shadow chancellor, said “I hope people will be going out”. This is acquiescence, not opposition. It is meekly echoing the priorities of a Tory government responsible for a series of policy disasters since the pandemic emerged at the start of the year.
There will no doubt be media panics about people behaving irresponsibly. There will be another round of blaming ordinary people, especially if numbers of infections do indeed rise again. But it is yet another government failure that will be to blame.
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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.
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