The Covid catastrophe - fuelled by monumental incompetence - has forced the government to impose a new national lockdown. For the labour movement that is neither something to celebrate nor to vote for, writes Eddie Ford
History is repeating itself: Boris Johnson ordered another full national lockdown on the evening of January 4 after Nicola Sturgeon had done the same in Scotland a few hours earlier. As for Wales and Northern Ireland, they have been in a state of near lockdown since the end of December. The English lockdown will last until at least mid-February, but Michael Gove has warned that severe restrictions will still be in place into March. Grimly, we are back to square one, as the weather starts to get really cold.
Given the darkness, I feel obliged to insert some good news. All reports so far are that the new strain of Covid-19 is not going to lessen the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in use. We should also be heartened by how quickly the vaccines were developed and, according to the scientists concerned, how they can easily be tweaked in the light of new strains and mutations of the virus.
Johnson hurrahs the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as a triumph of British genius. Well, apart from the fact that the ownership of AstraZeneca is British-Swedish, what really needs to be emphasised here is, yes, the brilliance of the science, but also the key role of the state. Left to the market, there would have been no Covid-19 vaccine within 10 months, maybe not even in 10 years. The state financed the whole operation and two hundred million doses were ordered in advance from AstraZeneca. There is a clear case for nationalising the whole pharma industry and the (useless) private hospital sector. And, while we are at it, instead of putting test-and-trace into the greedy hands of cronies, local government is in urgent need of revival. One of the reasons why Britain has done so badly in the pandemic - ninth in the world league table of rates of infection - is not just the sheer incompetence of Johnson and his government, it is the running down of spare capacity in the NHS … and the disempowering of local government: not least when it comes to health.
With one in 50 having tested positive for Covid in England - more than one million people, or 2.06% of the population - the government fears that the NHS is on the brink of being overwhelmed. Faced with such a catastrophic prospect, the prime minister felt forced to act against his political instincts and declare an immediate national lockdown.
A competent government - of any colour - could have halted Covid-19 in its tracks with just one national lockdown, if the NHS and local government had not been run down despite the known probable consequences. The government criminally ignored the results of Exercise Cygnus in 2016 - a simulation, when Jeremy Hunt was health secretary, of a “worst-case scenario” flu pandemic originating in south-east Asia.1 The results of this exercise were judged “too terrifying” to publish. It showed an NHS overwhelmed by the virus and morgues overflowing, due to a chronic lack of PPE, ventilators, critical care beds, etc.
Of course, Johnson blames the new Covid variant for the third national lockdown - reportedly up to 70% more infectious. There is also the South African variant. “Within weeks” it became the dominant form of the virus in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. But it must be understood that, so long as the virus is allowed to spread and spread, there will be constant mutations. So there needs to be a global campaign to eliminate the damned thing. Unless that happens it will come back again and again, eventually in vaccine-resistant form. Thankfully scientists say they can adapt vaccines within six week nowadays. But, meanwhile, more people will be infected and more people will die.
UK daily coronavirus cases topped 60,000 for first time on January 5, with a further 830 people dying - meaning that the number of patients in hospitals is currently 40% higher than in the first peak, with worse to come. Given the current trajectory, the UK could reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths before the end of the month. Compare that to countries such as China, New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea which have got on top of Covid-19. They must now deal with infections coming from abroad and are having to impose only limited, localised, lockdowns.
Of course, Johnson’s lockdown announcement represented yet another of his now famous U-turns - especially in relation to schools, which was a mind-melting reversal of policy. Only the day before on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show he had said there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” and told primaries to reopen the following day - giving kids the perfect opportunity to spread the virus: not the first act of criminal irresponsibility by the Johnson government since the pandemic began.
The next morning, on January 4, department for education officials were told there were no plans to close schools or cancel exams - only for Johnson in the evening to shut all schools for seven weeks (except for vulnerable children and those of key workers) and cancel most summer exams. Angering many have been the absurd twists and turns of the increasingly loathed education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
Closing schools does not just affect school students and teachers. Many parents are workers and will have to make the impossible choice between looking after their offspring or keeping their job. Part-time work, zero-hours contracts, precarious unofficial employment are the lot of millions. If there was a time to demand a guaranteed minimum income, this is it.
The same goes for the guaranteed right to housing. Rent and mortgage payments must be suspended for the duration of the lockdown. Too many people still live on the streets, hostels or are couch-surfing. Meanwhile, there are huge numbers of empty homes. The solution is obvious. All empty properties should be subject to confiscation and the homeless allocated suitable flats and houses. Certainly laws banning squatting ought to be abolished. People must come before property rights.
Not that we should trust the police. They are being given sweeping powers. Today the UK - along with many other countries - is almost a police state. With the end of lockdown police powers must be rolled back. We are against breaking lockdown rules. But there is a huge difference between a young person living, say, in Hackney, trapped in their parents’ cramped flat, possibly along with brothers and sisters, escaping in order to party with their friends; and the rich, powerful and privileged who are jetting off abroad to escape the lockdown. They ought to be subject to swingeing fines when they eventually deem to return. When it comes to breaking the lockdown rules, we say fines should not be flat-rate - they should be proportional to income.
On January 6 parliament voted 524 to 16 for the lockdown. Those against were a combination of Tories and DUPers. Keir Starmer typically ordered Labour MPs to vote with the Tory government. He wants to present Labour as a safe pair of hands, a loyal opposition which puts country above party.
Not that we would have joined with the Tory/DUP dissenters. No, we would have abstained in order to demonstrate our disloyal opposition - opposition to Johnson and his government’s dismal, criminal record in handling Covid-19; opposition to a government which refuses to carry out the radical measures needed to handle the pandemic in a rational, egalitarian fashion.