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Boris Johnson in Enfield, January 2021. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Boris Johnson in Enfield, January 2021. Photo: Flickr/Andrew Parsons

Alex Snowdon on Johnson's ceaseless governmental crisis and the fight for Zero Covid   

We are, as I write this, merely ten days into the year. It may have seemed impossible, as 2020 came to a close and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, that things could get any worse. But they certainly have. The pandemic has worsened even more rapidly than expected, with over 30,000 coronavirus patients currently in hospital.

The horror stories emerging from frontline NHS staff, often speaking or writing anonymously, reveal that our hospitals, especially in London and much of the south east, are already overburdened. This is becoming a genuine social crisis of a kind we are not accustomed to. What was a feared hypothesis is now – in area after area – becoming reality.

How recently the notion of daily deaths topping 1,300 seemed unthinkable. Yet that happened this week. We know – from the inexorable rise in confirmed cases – that the hospital admission and death figures will continue to be terrifyingly high for the rest of January.

It will get even worse before it gets better. This is a direct result of previous failures to impose a proper lockdown: no circuit breaker in October, a November lockdown that left schools fully open, a slowness to increase restrictions when the new strain became apparent in December.

Even the belated lockdown was forced on the government – partly by sheer brutal reality; partly by the struggle, led by the National Education Union, to close our schools. Last Sunday morning, Boris Johnson said on television that he was determined to keep schools open. By the following evening, he was addressing the nation to say that there is a full lockdown, including the closure of schools for on-site learning for at least six weeks.

What happened in between was the biggest online trade union meeting to date, the issuing of Section 44 notices by staff members in a great many schools, and a mass campaign to keep the schools closed following a Christmas break that saw infection rates rise and rise. Monday night’s speech by the prime minister consequently evoked a poignant sense of a political regime incapable of governing competently or controlling events. Working people – principally through the NEU – began to assert a simple but powerful idea: ‘If you don’t take responsibility, we will’.

Yet, since Monday, the government has undermined its own lockdown. It kept early years settings open. It effectively kept special schools open by adopting such a broad definition of ‘vulnerable pupils’. It broadened the criteria for key workers and issued guidance in such a way that large numbers of primary school parents still sent their children to school over the last week.

A number of Sage advisers and experts have spoken out in recent days to criticise this, also calling for things like a halt to collective religious worship and stricter curtailment of cleaners and tradespeople entering people’s homes. Many workplaces are still open; workers, under financial pressure ten months into the pandemic, feeling they have no choice.

There was, thankfully, a U-turn on Friday evening over the guidance on key worker parents. The Department for Education now accepts that parents should only send their children in if necessary. This was a result of trade union pressure.

It is one of five U-turns in education since New Year’s Day along with shifting all London schools online, the nationwide switch to remote learning, the cancellation of A-Levels and GCSEs and – announced days later but with utter inevitability – the scrapping of this year’s SATs.

The government continues to fail on the provision of technology for schoolchildren who need it for remote learning. Well over a million pupils do not have the technology required for successful online learning and it has emerged that Gavin Williamson, education secretary, has turned down offers and proposals to help with this. Even some right-wing newspapers have treated this as a scandal. Perhaps we would be in a better position if they hadn’t branded Labour’s 2019 manifesto commitments to improve internet and technology access as ‘broadband communism’.

The humiliating U-turns are testament to the complete incoherence and chaos in government policy. It reflects a deeper, long-term commitment to a strategy of merely seeking to manage the virus rather than eliminate it. But that fails on its own terms, i.e. avoiding hospital overload, when a new strain of the virus develops and when increased restrictions arrive too late and are not implemented properly. This is precisely what we are seeing now.

Wanted: a strategy for Zero Covid

The only sustainable alternative is a Zero Covid strategy. That begins with an immediate hardening of the lockdown.

It is partly about strengthening the rules and restrictions, but it is also about boosting financial support. That is the alternative to workers going into work even though they have symptoms, to people failing to self-isolate properly due to economic necessity, and in many cases to parents sending their children to school when they should really stay at home.

Demands like full sick pay for all, a higher living wage and 100% pay for furloughed workers are essential in this context. They are about both saving lives and ensuring that people aren’t plunged into poverty. There is, in so many ways, a big class dimension to how the pandemic has played out, with working class people suffering the most.

Zero Covid also requires throwing everything at both mass testing and mass vaccination. The current rates are too high for successful contact tracing to be viable, but testing is still crucial. When the numbers come down, we must – finally – have serious tracing put in place, accompanied by real practical and financial support for people to self-isolate. This is one of the key messages from countries that have very low rates: it isn’t just testing that matters, but prompt and thorough contact tracing and support for self-isolation.

The vaccine is the great hope for the longer term, but it has been rolled out too slowly. The government was far too complacent during the autumn, when it should have been gearing up for a mass vaccination programme – getting the infrastructure and personnel ready to make it a success. By the time vaccination really has an effect, at least another 30,000 people will have died. We know that because we know what the infection rates have been for the last few weeks.

However, a Zero Covid strategy also requires thinking beyond the immediate lockdown, guaranteed to be at least six weeks. There will be a struggle over when to lift restrictions, with the government no doubt inclined to repeat its mistakes of last year and rush everything.

We have learnt from experience that premature relaxation of lockdown, done in the name of ‘re-starting the economy’, does more economic damage in the longer term. Those countries that took the most effective public health measures are those that have taken the least economic hit.

We should be clear that major financial support measures must extend beyond the current emergency. Systematic ‘test, trace, isolate and support’ measures will be required for the long term – they are most effective when the numbers have fallen significantly. Measures like keeping international travel to an absolute minimum – and the testing of people going in and out of the country – will be needed for many months to come.

The immediate task is to struggle for the most effective possible lockdown. We also need a serious Zero Covid strategy. We are fighting to save lives and, in the course of that struggle, we must begin to shape a better future.

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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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