Updated: Jan 14
12 October 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s confused and confusing new ‘traffic light’ restrictions and local partial lockdowns are ineffective and the cause of huge resentment, says Phil Hearse.
Only a new strategy to aggressively track and suppress the virus, plus huge subsidies to workers, small businesses, and people on benefits, can rally public support and create the basis for a later, safer, re-opening.
The real UK figure for deaths is 60,000+, based on death certificates that mention Covid-19, not the government’s more restrictive 42,000 total of hospital deaths in the 28 days after diagnosis. And the virus crisis has caused many other deaths of patients who could not get or did not ask for, urgent treatment for other dangerous illnesses.
The virus is out of control, with infections in many areas doubling every few days. Levels of infection closely mirror areas of poverty and overcrowded housing, which is why the Northern cities have many more infections than rural areas and the south of the country. It is also the reason why infection spread often targets minority Black and Asian communities.
Britain is not unique in witnessing mass infections as a result of the second wave, with the United States, in particular, continuing to see huge increases in infections and deaths, a situation not helped by the deranged behaviour of President Donald Trump.[i]
The latest UK figure (5 October)[ii] shows one in every 170 people is infected, against one in every 769 a month earlier – an increase of 450%. Lab tests have confirmed more than half a million people are infected, with the number growing by more than 45,000 every day. In other words, in 12 days’ time, the figure will be over a million.
But there is worse. According to data released last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 71% of people who tested positive in a national coronavirus survey were not displaying any core symptoms.[iii] The conclusion is clear: only massive, nationwide test-and-trace, with millions of tests a day, will reveal enough infected people to make quarantining effective. And the quarantine must be combined with a new raft of widespread, intensive measures to suppress the virus.
This daunting situation is caused by the lateness of the initial lockdown plus the complete failure of the government and private company Lighthouse Laboratories, hired to process tests, to create an effective national test-and-trace system. There are too few tests, the results turnaround is too slow, and follow-up tracing chaotic verging on useless.
No wonder a common response is to reject further lockdowns. This response is, however, wrong. While there is little point in closing bars at 10 pm or having different ‘traffic light’ restrictions in different areas, a new national lockdown is needed as part of a strategy that focuses on test, trace, and quarantine. That is the crucial weapon that has worked well in other countries.
You cannot lockdown society forever, but a new national lockdown of several months could be a crucial instrument to suppress virus transmission while an effective test-and-trace system is built up, social distancing enforced, and mask-wearing made compulsory, not voluntary, in crowded public places. Where national lockdowns were rapidly imposed, virus suppression was significantly increased – provided effective test, trace, and quarantine measures were in place.
It is clearly not enough simply to ask communities and businesses to fall into line when so many have now completely lost confidence in the government handling of the pandemic. This mistrust can be overcome only by comprehensive new virus-suppression measures, a massive injection of funds to prevent social collapse, proper democratic control over emergency measures, and mobilisation of public resources (instead of handing contracts to incompetent private-sector profiteers). Crucially, any new national lockdown would require financial support to workers, small businesses, and public organisations on a truly massive scale.
Disabled people are suffering during the virus crisis, because of isolation, lack of social care, and legislation suspending some council services. Addressing the needs of disabled people by boosting social care must be part of any new financial support package.
Opponents of lockdown who want business totally re-opened forget a crucial point. If there is a general re-opening of shopping centres, sports and entertainment venues, clubs, bars, and pubs while the virus is still rampant, many of these businesses are going to die anyway. If we have a renewed virus massacre, millions of people, the elderly and most vulnerable, are going impose their own lockdown as far as they can, however many teenagers pack the local bars.
Some foolish people would doubtless turn up on the banks of the Thames for the New Year’s Eve fireworks, but many thousands more would stay away. There are no economic solutions without suppressing the virus.
The mayors of Northern cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and North Tyne – quite rightly demand more financial support before signing off on any new lockdown measures. Sunak’s new package does nothing to address the fate of millions who have been, or soon will be, made redundant. Neither does it address the thousands of enterprises close to bankruptcy, but which are not going to be directly ordered to close by the government.
Many small-business owners and self-employed people are not well-off.[iv] Many of them are part of the working class. They should be supported. Big business, on the other hand, should not be given huge state handouts. Companies like Edinburgh Woollen Mill, close to collapse and about to make 24,000 redundant, should be supported but only on the basis that the government takes a majority holding and protects jobs.[v]
The Tory death-toll
The multiple failures in government strategy are glaringly obvious. Because of concerns about business profits, Britain went into lockdown far too late, when the virus had already taken hold, especially in care homes. Without the virus suppressed, but under pressure from the Tory Right, re-opening happened too quickly and without clear safety guidelines. Hundreds have died unnecessarily because of these failures.
The messaging of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s team has become confused and misleading. Johnson says ‘be courageous and get out there’, while Michael Gove says ‘work at home if you can’. Irresponsible underestimation of the virus has resulted in the fiasco at universities, with thousands of students locked in their halls of residence. Sending students back to college en masse was a sure way to spread the virus.
Right-wing Tory MPs, led by arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker, are swinging in behind an ultra-reactionary manifesto called The Great Barrington Declaration. It calls for the isolation only of the old and sick, and for a ‘return to normal’ among healthy younger people, who can be allowed to develop ‘herd immunity’, by catching and recovering from the virus.
This is absurd on every front, a recipe for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Young people who get the disease will spread it to older relatives, even if they are personally asymptomatic. Doctors and scientists are unsure of the long-term health effects of contracting Covid-19: ‘herd immunity’ may result in unnecessary suffering later in life. And in Manchester, it is rumoured some students have been admitted to intensive care.
More importantly, the complete isolation of people who are older or have underlying health conditions is impossible. Older people have more medical appointments and a ‘herd immunity’ strategy will re-start the infection crisis in hospitals, among patients and medical staff. Already, as an indirect consequence of the pandemic, more elderly people are currently dying of non-Covid health problems than of the virus itself because their appointments are having to be cancelled.
The Great Barrington Declaration advocating a ‘herd immunity’ approach to the pandemic has been sponsored by an institution embedded in a network funded by the ultra-reactionary billionaire Koch brothers, a network that denies climate science while investing in polluting fossil-fuel industries. What we are hearing is the voice of the Far Right.
On 3 October, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a ‘libertarian’ free-market think-tank in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, hosted a private gathering of scientists, economists, and journalists to discuss responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Among them was Oxford University epidemiologist Professor Sunetra Gupta, among the most vocal proponents of a ‘herd immunity’ strategy.
The Declaration was drafted by Gupta with two other top US scientists, Professor Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University and Stanford Fellow Jay Bhattacharya. The Declaration itself – which calls for only the elderly and vulnerable to be quarantined while letting young people contract the virus – was signed by an initial batch of some 35 scientists.
The claim that ‘thousands of scientists’ are supporting the Barrington Declaration was reported far and wide by major media outlets from the BBC to the Daily Mail. But anyone can sign the declaration online and claim medical status. As exposed in detail by Wired magazine, the claim that there is any substantial divide inside the scientific community over the crank ‘herd immunity’ strategy is quite false.
The declaration claims that lockdowns strategies are not working, but as Wired points out:
The problem is that we aren’t in lockdown. Across the UK, pubs, restaurants, schools, and universities are all largely open. The kind of lockdown that the Great Barrington Declaration seems to be railing against hasn’t been in place in the UK since mid-June. Even in places like Manchester which are under local lockdown restrictions, pubs, restaurants, and schools are still open … When the Great Barrington Declaration authors declare their opposition to lockdowns, they are quite literally arguing with the past.
Now the situation is a complete mess, with the government not knowing which way to turn, with infections and deaths on the rise, and with the hospitals filling up. One target that the government is well on the way to meeting is SAGE’s ‘worst-case scenario’ of 85,000 more deaths over the winter. And the government is under massive pressure from the Mail and the Telegraph and its own most right-wing MPs to avoid further lockdowns. Surprisingly, the government finds itself under little pressure from the Labour front-bench – which aims to survive the crisis by saying nothing substantial.
A people’s response to the pandemic
A strategy to defend the interests of the people as opposed to big business must start with the basics. Partial lockdowns – those restricted to certain areas or covering certain activities – are not working. We need another national lockdown now. That means as many people working from home as possible and the complete closure of the hospitality industry and non-essential shops.
Frontline workers – in medical centres, care homes, schools, supermarkets, and public transport, for example – must have effective personal protective equipment and social distancing, if possible, negotiated with trade unions. They should also have regular access to testing.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 45% of all cases in the UK are in educational institutions. The situation in universities is catastrophic. At the time of writing, there are 1600 confirmed cases at Manchester’s two universities, more than a thousand at Newcastle, and 800 at Sheffield.
Face-to-face teaching at universities should cease. But keeping students locked up will ensure they all get the virus. Those in halls of residence should all be tested and if they are not infectious allowed to go home if they wish – if that is possible or appropriate (which will not be for foreign students). Teaching can then resume online.
The idea that schoolchildren will mainly not get or spread the virus has been proved false. According to the ‘ToryFibs’ Twitter account, more than 2,500 schools have had virus outbreaks, with 595 local clusters of cases focused on educational centres. In Germany, where schools opened earlier, the new explosion in Covid-19 cases coincided with the re-opening of the schools. The writing is on the wall for schools. Teaching has to be made safe and really socially distanced with far fewer pupils in at one time. As everywhere else, conditions have to be negotiated with unions. If infections continue to spread, the schools will have to close.
A new national lockdown is something that will be looked on with dread across the population. Many will fear the economic consequences, many more will fear the lack of social contact that Covid-19 isolation will bring, and most will mourn the damage being done to the arts and cultural activities.
Those defending the interests of the non-rich majority of the population have to point out that this situation has been caused by the serial negligence and incompetence of the Johnson/Cummings regime, the corruption of crony-capitalist contracting to private corporations, and the continuing failure, even now, to set up an effective system of test-and-trace. But we must start where we are – amid the shambles created by a far-right neoliberal regime – not where we would like to be.
It cannot be emphasised enough that a new, more intensive lockdown will bring extreme hardship if it is not accompanied by a comprehensive raft of economic measures, aimed at boosting personal economic security, not the profits of big companies. It means targeting all those laid off because of the virus. It means adequate financial and social support for all those living on benefits. It means cancelling all rent arrears and suspending all evictions for non-payment. It means tax and rent holidays for struggling small businesses. And much more.
More partial lockdowns or a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ are not going to dampen down the virus. They would be sticking plaster on a gaping wound. A new national lockdown plus millions of tests each day will suppress the virus, though not eliminate it. The experience of places like the Australian state of Victoria shows this is possible.
In the longer term, vaccines, even those that last for just six months or a year, will become a major part of humanity’s defence mechanism. But in the meantime, we have to guard against mass deaths and repeatedly allowing the virus to re-emerge. When someone gets Ebola it is obvious – they immediately become ill and die within a few days. Covid-19 is not like that. It needs to be continuously hunted down and its chain of transmission blocked. Test, track, and quarantine, with substantial financial support for the hardest hit, is the way to go.
But without building public support for a new strategy, attempts to rely on enforcement monitors or the police will not work; they will merely enable authoritarian bullying and give traction to the anti-lockdown demands of fascists, conspiracy theorists, and the Tory Right. Communities won to a new national strategy of social solidarity and mutual support will themselves impose restrictions that have mass approval.
As if the damage done to public health and the economy were not enough, the government is cascading towards a no-deal Brexit, which, from 1 January 2020, will compound the escalating social disaster that is Tory Britain. Watch out for shortages of food, drugs, and other vital goods, and for Covid outbreaks in the seven-mile queues of trucks waiting for customs clearance at Dover.
And keep this in mind: nothing – precisely nothing – has been done about the agribusiness complexes and slum cities where, in the interests of corporate profit, new diseases are being prepared. It is not just catastrophic climate change that threatens the survival of humanity; it is further waves of pandemic sweeping the world.
The conclusion is obvious: the system must be ended. The madness of uncontrolled capital accumulation must be ended. The destruction of human welfare in the interests of a tiny class of super-rich must be ended.
Phil Hearse is a veteran activist in Socialist Resistance, Mutiny, and Anti*Capitalist Resistance. He is joint author of System Crash: an activist’s guide to the coming democratic revolution (forthcoming)
[i] For example in the state of Wisconsin, with about 6 million inhabitants, new infections are rising at a rate of three thousand a day and the health systems in danger of being overwhelmed. Local health official Dr Ryan Eckhart puts this down to poor uptake of mask wearing and other restrictions, and the legal challenges to lockdown orders by the state. And he puts that down to opposition from national leaders (BBC World Service, 10 October). [ii] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2237475-covid-19-news-one-in-170-people-in-england-have-coronavirus/ [iii] https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-up-to-80-of-covid-19-patients-have-no-symptoms-health-secretary-says-12004987 [iv] Especially because hundreds of thousands ‘self-employed’ people are really workers who have been forced to become self-employed by their employer, in a ruse to save on holiday pay, taxes and other benefits. [v] Subject to social benefit criteria of course. Environmentally damaging companies and industries should not be supported even if they are brought into public ownership.