The government's scrapping of all Covid measures and dumping the costs of testing onto individuals is a political choice to sacrifice public health for profit, argues Terina Hine
Tory backbenchers popped open the bubbly at the news that all Covid measures are about to come to an end. A show of support not a day too soon for their leader, concerned about the outcome of the police investigation into Partygate. Abandoning Covid rules as announced on Monday ignores both the science and the advice of the government’s own health experts, but Boris Johnson just doesn’t care.
The Tories are telling us the pandemic is over, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock proudly announced, “We’re the first major country in the world to be past the pandemic,” but no country is past the pandemic. They tell us we need to regain our freedoms, but this is not about freedom, it is about whittling back the state and galvanising libertarian support.
In an unquestionably political move, implemented by a prime minister desperate to save his own skin and a chancellor hellbent on a new austerity programme, this rejection of all health measures is an abdication of responsibility. It is a direct attack on public health, and an attack which will harm the poorest and most vulnerable the most.
The government’s “Living with Covid” document makes it clear the onus for Covid safety is now an entirely a private matter.
From 24 February people with Covid will no longer need to isolate. From 24 March statutory sick pay and employment support will return to pre-pandemic levels - with sick pay available from day four rather day one for those who qualify at all.
From 1 April the number of hospitalisations, deaths and infection rates will remain a mystery as the daily updates are scrapped, and there will be no more free tests for the public. That’s no more twice-weekly testing in schools, no more tests for carers or frontline NHS staff, no tests for visitors to care homes. But not to worry, the PM reassured us, “anyone who wants can buy a test.” And of course if you’re sick you should do as the Germans do, and stay home. How out of touch can he be?
People on low incomes have already suffered most in the pandemic; deaths have consistently been 2-3 times higher in the most deprived areas and vaccination rates are lowest. With the price of tests expected to be £20 per box, for the bus driver, the cleaner, the supermarket worker, the waiter - the key workers we were all encouraged to clap for - this could be more than just another hike in the cost of living.
And as for the German’s example - sure, if the British worker got 100% sick pay for the first two weeks followed by 50% for another 84, rather than the miserly £96.35 (for a maximum of 28) they currently receive, or the £0 the zero-hours-contract workers gets, then staying home when sick would be no problem.
Last week the Department of Health asked the Treasury for £5bn to maintain free testing, by Saturday the bid had been reduced to £3bn, by Sunday to £1.8bn. On Monday the Treasury won the bidding war and made clear no money was available; any continuation of testing would have to come from existing NHS budgets. That the Treasury argued so hard for this cut is an absolute disgrace when they happily spent £37bn on Test and Trace, wrote off millions for fraudulent Covid claims and spent goodness knows how much on corrupt Covid contracts for unusable PPE. Thanks to Sunak’s austerity measures our chronically underfunded NHS has just got poorer.
At the final Downing Street Covid press conference, the message from Professors Whitty and Vallance diverged significantly from that of the Prime Minister standing between them. They emphasised the need for “gradual, steady change” saying next winter might be “tricky”. Their performances focussed on the evolving and unstable nature of the virus, on the short-lived immunity, the need for surveillance and to revamp national testing fast in the “inevitable” event of a new variant.
On 10 February Sage raised concerns about transmission rates and reducing our testing ability: “Allowing continued and unopposed transmission is a recipe for further adaptation by the virus,” read the minutes, and the next adaptation of the virus may be more severe and evade vaccines. The need for fast detection through testing is therefore crucial.
No one denies this is expensive - good public health is - but the price of not paying is even higher, and the eye-watering sums handed out to Tory donors and friends shows it is entirely affordable. The UK’s lack of pandemic preparedness was well documented in the early days of Covid, but the Tories have learned nothing in the intervening two years and we appear to be heading back to where we started.
As with all austerity measures, this is a political choice. Abandoning Covid public health measures is a reckless gamble by a Prime Minister with no authority, in hook to his crazed backbenchers and libertarian Chancellor. It is a public health travesty for which we will all pay the price.