As the infection rate, and deaths, continue to rise, the government’s poor excuse for a lockdown offers no solution, argues Alex Snowdon
It is one week since Boris Johnson announced a second lockdown for England. It was evident in the prime minister’s media briefing that his government did not have a coherent strategy for tackling the resurgence of coronavirus. This is now even more obviously the case than last Saturday.
It was the sharp rise in hospital admissions, with the prospect of further rises very soon, that finally forced the government to reluctantly act. It is currently being forecast that by the end of November the numbers of coronavirus patients in hospitals will surpass the levels in April, the previous peak.
The current lockdown may just prove enough to stop the hospitals being overburdened. It may not. But even if it does then we are going to see many thousands more lives lost in the weeks ahead - and we will almost certainly still face at least one more lockdown over the winter.
The Tories took too long to institute a lockdown, it is half-baked now we have it, and there is a serious danger that it will be lifted in early December even if the R number has not been brought below 1 nationwide. That will consequently be followed by a return to chaotic and incoherent locally tiered restrictions before another national lockdown is near-inevitably required again.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has been forced by brute reality to extend the furlough, with a restoration of 80% pay going to furloughed workers. This is an example of lurching from crisis to crisis, not an integral part of a joined-up plan.
It is also inadequate: workers who are unable to work because the top priority is controlling the pandemic ought to be on full pay. None of the things they are paying for - rent or mortgage, bills, food etc - cost any less than before.
This is also clearly a lockdown in name only. Many people reported significant levels of traffic on Thursday and Friday (this was my own experience too), suggesting that large numbers of people are still having to go into work. The lack of clear messaging and inadequacies in financial support make it more likely that workplaces will keep functioning when they really shouldn’t be.
Another major factor in preventing it being a proper lockdown is the bizarre decision to keep schools fully open. Nine million children are still going to school every day, mixing indoors in classes of up to 30. Whatever educational and wellbeing benefits there may be to keeping schools open, this is bound to massively weaken efforts to slow down virus transmission.
Schools remaining open is dangerous in itself, but it also sends a powerful message across society that this isn’t a serious lockdown. If it can be possible for large numbers of school students to gather indoors all day in school, how can this be a real lockdown? Why should people comply with the restrictions? It also means that millions of parents are available to go out to work because their need for childcare is covered by school.
The National Education Union released a statement last Saturday which called for all schools and colleges to be included in the lockdown. This has generated a strong response, with huge numbers of NEU members signing an online statement in support. Head teachers are increasingly speaking out about the crisis in schools and calling for stronger action.
Keeping the schools open is, in many areas, proving unsustainable in practice. Such problems as high numbers of staff self-isolating and frequent instances of ‘bubbles’ of pupils being sent home are making it extremely hard to keep going. There has been almost no support from government to support schools through this period. There is close to zero additional funding, staffing or space, plus there is no mass routine testing in schools.
The ongoing crisis of testing is a wider phenomenon that just the lack of testing in educational settings. There are renewed calls from scientists, public health experts and local authorities for testing and tracing to be brought fully under public control and coordinated by local teams. The current set-up is hopeless when it comes to contact tracing, undermining the benefits of any increase in testing capacity.
The testing regime is also weakened by poor compliance with self-isolation. This is largely for financial reasons. But the third part of the ‘test, trace, isolate’ mantra is essential. People need to be fully supported in doing this.
There has been remarkably little reference, in government briefings and information, to the fact that lockdowns are designed to provide a space in which to make ‘test, trace, isolate’ effective. Lockdowns are not enough on their own, functioning (as the WHO has repeatedly insisted) as a pause not a stop in virus transmission. The necessary overhaul of the test, trace and isolate system is not happening.
The lockdown is also weakened by the lack of any strong communications from central government. There has been no return to the daily televised briefings, which helped in conveying the seriousness and gravity of the situation between March and May. If there is growing non-compliance then the government is to blame.
The government is in a mess. Labour has moderately criticised elements of the Tories’ approach, but has failed to argue for a coherent alternative strategy. Worst of all, it has stuck dogmatically to the line that schools and colleges must remain fully open no matter what.
The left has the challenge of championing an alternative approach and a set of demands that puts the lives, safety and wellbeing of all at the centre of what happens. The People’s Assembly’s new Zero Covid Charter and the NEU’s campaigning around schools give a sense of what is needed.
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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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