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Boris Johnson at Exeter College Construction Centre

Boris Johnson at Exeter College Construction Centre, Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The government is once again scapegoating ordinary people to cover its own failures, argues Alex Snowdon

Boris Johnson has blamed the rise in coronavirus infections on a "fraying of people's discipline". He claimed that "everybody got a bit, kind of complacent", while saying nothing about his own government's role in prematurely promoting a 'return to normal'. 

This is the latest round of scapegoating. In fact, it is the Tories’ handling of the pandemic that has made it far more deadly and longer-lasting than it needed to be. Britain is among the worst countries in the world for coronavirus infections and deaths. Tens of thousands have died. 

Repeated failures 

The government took too long to lock down, allowing the virus to spread. Determined to 'kickstart the economy', it rushed the lifting of lockdown restrictions from May onwards. Instead of suppressing virus transmission to an extremely low level, Johnson tried to return to normal prematurely. We are now paying the price.

Johnson's government also failed to deliver coronavirus testing on the level required. The World Health Organisation has repeatedly insisted that a strong 'test, trace, quarantine' system is central to dealing with the pandemic. 

This is the main lesson to be taken from countries, especially in Asia, that prevented a major 'first wave' of the virus. It is also the key lesson from countries, like Italy, that have kept numbers low since recovering from a very serious crisis in the spring. 

In Britain, testing has been hobbled by a lack of ambition and decades of outsourcing and privatisation in the public sector. The Tories have stuck faithfully with a fragmented and failing set-up instead of having a coordinated approach to NHS testing and contact tracing. Consequently, the return to schools and offices in September was accompanied by a massive crisis of testing capacity. 

Yet Johnson has refuted the suggestion that inadequate testing played a role in the dramatic rise in cases in north-east England, simply saying "That's not the reality". 

Sharp rise 

It is no mystery why September saw such a startling rise in case numbers, roughly doubling every eight days. The virus was not driven down to a low enough level due to hasty lifting of lockdown. We now have thousands of official cases daily, with yesterday's figure close to 7000. The R number is thought to be between 1.3 and 1.6.

Full reopening of schools - accompanied by Johnson instructing workers to return to the office - brought large numbers of people together in close proximity. The test-and-trace system wasn't in place to deal with the inevitable risks.

Many Tory MPs are advocating more loosening up of economic activity, irrespective of the enormous dangers to lives and health. It seems that August's 'Eat Out to Help Out' helped drive the resurgence of the virus. Giving priority to narrow economic interests is why universities have been attempting to return to face-to-face teaching, and therefore packing students into shared accommodation, instead of sticking with online learning. 

We are now seeing mass outbreaks developing in universities. Most shockingly, Northumbria University in Newcastle has reported 770 positive tests. Unless online learning is the norm everywhere, there will be more like this. 

Opposition 

Labour's response had been timid at best. Keir Starmer is determined to end any left-wing legacy from the Corbyn years and move Labour sharply to the right. Starmer has pursued a cross-party consensus with the Tories, tempered by mild criticisms. 

Labour has crumbled when confronted by a severe public health crisis, which is evolving into an equally serious crisis for people's jobs and livelihoods. Starmer pushed for the premature lifting of lockdown restrictions and for a 'no ifs, no buts' approach to full school reopening. On both counts he has proved dangerously wrong. 

We need the labour movement to fight for a stronger approach that will get the pandemic under control, while also standing up for the jobs, pay and conditions of working class people. The People's Assembly day of action on 17 October is a vital contribution to that project. Trade unions should get fully behind it. 

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

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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