Protecting people's lives and preventing hardship are not an either/or, what we need is the political will to do both, argues Chris Nineham
The Tories’ main claim to justify their feeble response to the pandemic is that you can’t protect both lives and livelihoods at the same time. They argue that there has to be a compromise between the two.
This is a lie.
It is in fact precisely this approach that has led to Britain having both the highest number of deaths in Europe and one of the worst hits to the economy.
It has led to a sometimes hidden, sometimes open sign up to herd immunity which in turn has meant the government has been behind the curve – literally – since the outbreak started.
They were late to lockdown, late to close schools and early to lift restrictions. They encouraged people to get back to travelling in late summer and insisted on opening schools and universities in the autumn.
The abysmal failure to to set up an adequate test and trace system is not an accident. Not just the government, but top officials, including Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer argued throughout April that testing was not necessary.
Their response has of course been made much worse by their knee jerk instinct to outsource operations to private for-profit companies, often run by their mates.
The result of all this was a tragic death toll in the summer and the current second surge, once again, one of the worst in Europe.
For a zero-Covid strategy
An early, decisive and properly funded response to the outbreak of the pandemic which mobilised all the resources and expertise in the public sector, co-ordinating central and local authorities, could have pretty much eradicated the virus.
Countries which pursued this kind of zero-Covid strategy like New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea were able to control the virus quickly, minimise deaths and reopen their economies as a result. These countries have had 500 Covid-19 deaths combined, compared to more than 43,000 in Britain.
Failure to defeat the virus here has led to much greater disruption for everyone.
Nothing could be worse for people’s ability to plan ahead and sustain lives than the kind of shambolic, stop-start, panic response on display from the Johnson government.
Mainly because of the almost incomprehensible failure to organise a functioning mass testing system, we are now in a situation where a second national lockdown is the only way to stop a sharp increase in deaths.
‘Scientists’ like Carl Heneghan who claim that a lockdown won’t help are getting the ear of government and more and more media airtime. Heneghan, and others like them are essentially propagandists with links both to big pharma and right wing politicians. Their arguments are threadbare. Even they can’t claim that lockdowns don’t slow the spread of the virus. The evidence is simply overwhelming that they do, and much more effectively than rolling local shutdowns. Like the government, they have to fall back on the claim that the advantages of a lockdown have to be ‘balanced’ against other, damaging consequences.
A lockdown plus
No-one wants another lockdown, but we should be clear, even in this unpleasant and avoidable situation, there is no reason why people should suffer badly. The only people who believe this is inevitable are free market fanatics.
The lockdown needs to be accompanied by an urgent programme to protect jobs and livelihoods and avoid long term damage to the economy. Some of this was done by the Tories, under pressure, in the first lockdown. A more ambitious programme not just safeguarding jobs but providing support and services for the isolated and vulnerable during lockdown is eminently possible.
Those who argue that the resources for this are not available are making political, not economic arguments. The Bank of England has recently said that given low interest rates and weak inflationary pressures there is scope for much more pump priming of the economy.
Even more recently the IMF issued a statement which contradicts Rishi Sunak’s cautious approach to borrowing. The statement said that even from the point of view of big business, ‘more needs to be done to address rising poverty, unemployment and inequality’. The IMF’s managing director specifically opposed winding down social programmes and called on all countries to continue measures ‘to protect lives and livelihoods’.
There is also massive scope for a programme of taxation that could free up huge resources. Recent research from two economic think tanks for example found that inequality is so out of control in Britain that a salary cap at £100,000 would generate enough public money to create one million new jobs. The same researchers found that in the arts sector all workers could be paid an £11 per hour wage if salaries were capped at £251,760.
We can save lives and livelihoods. What is needed is the political will to fight for an emergency programme including redistribution of wealth. This would be massively popular not just because it would have an immediate impact but because so many people want to see permanent, progressive change from the pandemic. We are not going to get this from a Starmer-led Labour Party, but we can, and must, fight for it as a movement.
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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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