To end Britain’s coronavirus disaster, the priority must change from saving profits to saving lives

Medical worker wearing a bin bag - UK preparation for coronavirus

By Bridget Anderson and Robin Jackson

The rising daily number of people dying from coronavirus in Britain is disastrous. Deaths are now increasing at almost the fastest rate in the world. If the government does not change its completely inadequate policy the situation will become a catastrophe.

According to the UK government’s own figures, which only partially report the pandemic’s development, the daily number of people dying has now risen above 600, and this number has been increasing exponentially for several weeks. Currently the government only reports deaths that take place in hospital and among patients with a confirmed coronavirus test. Even that significantly reduced data reports a total death toll by 6 April of 5,373, with the daily increase rising by an average of more than 20% every day over the past week. To indicate the seriousness of this, if a rate of increase of 20% were maintained  for a month the cumulative death toll would be greater than 400,000 by then – a catastrophe. The last few days have seen a decrease due to the partial lockdown but only to a rate which would still leave over 200,000 dead in a month.

As the graph below from the Financial Times indicates, the rate of increase in coronavirus deaths in the UK, and also in the US, is not coming down even remotely fast enough. It can be seen clearly that, unlike many other countries where the rate of increase has plateaued, that is not the case for the UK and US. That is the significance of the rising almost straight lines of UK and US daily deaths – as the graph uses a logarithmic scaled y-axis.

This pandemic is being handled so badly in the UK that the current number of daily deaths is approximately three times as large as the peak daily toll in China, a country with a population 21 times that of the UK.

An avoidable disaster: government inaction, delays and inadequate response is to blame

An entirely wrong framework underpins the UK government’s actions. Instead of the saving of life being the driver of policy, it is attempts to put capitalist profits first, no matter the number of lives this will sacrifice. Such an approach ought to be criminal, but it is Boris Johnson’s Tory government setting this agenda.

That is why the effective measures to halt person-to-person transmission of the virus, that were developed in China more than two months ago, are not being applied at all in the UK. The effective lockdown in China bought the daily death toll there down to single figures – and on 6 April for the first time the daily death total was reduced to zero. Under Johnson’s Tory government the UK is not having a proper lockdown – the state broadcaster (BBC) even calls it a ‘partial lockdown’.

Workers who are not essential to the fight against the virus are still working. They and the workers who are essential in the fight against the virus overwhelmingly have no protective clothing or equipment. Doctors and nurses that have spoken out against this dangerous lack of personal protection equipment have been threatened with disciplinary action – even though a growing number of their colleagues are dying as a result.

The lack of protection of nearly all workers endangers each of these workers, but also enables the virus to freely carry on being transmitted throughout the population.

All the government’s rhetoric about protecting the NHS and saving people’s lives is simply empty propaganda, totally at odds with the government’s actual actions, which have inflicted a disaster on the population. It remains the case that the government’s lack of action to protect public health is leading Britain towards a catastrophe.

If the government had wanted to prioritise the saving of lives it would have made use of the two months’ advance notice it was given of the approaching crisis. On 30 January the World Health Organisation stated that ‘all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread’ of the coronavirus.

During these vital months the British government should have: prepared for testing, created new expanded hospital capacity, equipped hospitals, purchased ventilators and prepared the population for a serious lockdown. And now, one month since the first coronavirus deaths in Britain most of this is criminally still not being done.

It was not until 12 March, that the British government finally unveiled a response to the coronavirus. By this point the UK already had hundreds of confirmed cases and thousands of unconfirmed cases. The official response was to continue doing nothing and allow the virus to spread uncontrollably through the population. The inevitable consequence of this strategy, which the government at the time described as a policy to achieve ‘herd immunity’, would be millions of people catching the virus and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Following a public outcry the government has since introduced (from 23 March) what initially some in the media entirely farcically described as a ‘strict lockdown’. The half-measures that have been introduced in Britain are not remotely comparable to the effective measures adopted in China. Whilst they are a small step up from the total laissez-faire approach of ‘herd immunity’, this partial and lax lockdown is clearly not succeeding in containing the spread of the virus  even remotely fast enough. It is endangering, not saving, lives. In Britain’s absurd version of a ‘lockdown’ millions of people continue to work in non-essential roles, people can leave their homes for non-essential reasons and no measures have been brought in to ensure protection for essential travel – such as the wearing of masks and other protection. For an example of what a comprehensive response to containing the coronavirus looks like, watch this video of what the Chinese city of Nanjing has been doing.

The lack of testing taking place in Britain is also scandalous. In mid-March the British government took the extraordinary decision to limit testing to those who are already seriously ill and mostly restricted that to those in hospital. Frontline NHS staff that should be tested as a matter of course were denied tests. This approach is totally against the recommendations of the World Health Organisation which regards widespread testing as totally essential in the fight to defeat coronavirus. As the WHO’s Director-General puts it: ‘You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission.’

There is an explicit campaign underway to reverse even the government’s inadequate half-measures and return to the explicit so called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. On 4 April The Times ran an article headlined: ‘Boris Johnson’s coronavirus adviser calls for a way out of lockdown.’ Such an approach would kill tens, far more probably hundreds, of thousands of people.

Tory government attempts to ‘prepare’ population to accept mass deaths instead of fighting to save lives

The government, backed up by  large parts of the Tory media, has been trying to convince the populations that it is inevitable that many thousands of people will die from the coronavirus.

It has become absolutely clear that the coronavirus represents a deadly threat to humanity with the potential to kill millions of people worldwide within months if governments fail to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the disease. But it is not inevitable. Socialist China has demonstrated that a major outbreak of coronavirus can be fully brought under control.

To disguise their criminal negligence in the face of this global pandemic, the Tory government has been attempting to psychologically prepare the population for a high death toll as though this was an inevitable outcome of the virus and not due to the government’s inadequate action. 

When Boris Johnson unveiled the UK government’s response to the coronavirus on the 12 March he asked the public to prepare to ‘lose loved ones before their time’. At this point the UK was only reporting 590 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths. As a result the British government’s inaction the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has increased 87-fold to 51,608 in the past three and a half weeks. The number of deaths has spiralled from 10 to 5,373. There was nothing inevitable about the uncontrollable spread of the coronavirus which is currently taking place in the UK.

Governments elsewhere in the West – particularly the US – have also presented the idea of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of people dying as a favourable result. The New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher tweeted an image on 31 March of US President Donald Trump standing in front of a presentation slide which described ‘100,000–240,000 deaths’ as a goal. On 17 March the UK’s Chief Scientific adviser said that 20,000 coronavirus deaths would be ‘a good outcome.’

There has been a relentless campaign in the British media to sow the idea that ‘only’ the elderly and those with weaker immune systems, or ‘underlying health conditions’ are likely to get seriously ill and die in large numbers from the coronavirus. The implication is that such people are expendable. The case is also being made – including by the BBC – that these people would have died soon anyway, regardless of whether they contracted the coronavirus or not. This is simply an attempt to disguise the true scale of the avoidable catastrophe that is currently unfolding.

In the US public discussion on the expendability of older people in the name of defending profits has become even more explicit. In an interview on Fox New, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick stated older people should be willing to sacrifice themselves and die in order to save the economy. He said:

‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?… We can’t lose our whole country, we’re having an economic collapse.’ 

This is obviously a totally barbaric approach.

With the UK government’s current approach – unless there is an urgent U-turn – set to lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths over the coming weeks, the right-wing mainstream media will continue to attempt to rationalise, downplay and conceal what is in reality an avoidable catastrophe caused by the Tories’ criminal negligence. 

What it takes to save lives: what learning from China’s approach means for Britain

To save lives in Britain, what is urgently needed is the adoption of the measures that China has found successful, most of which are also recommended by the World Health Organisation. Firstly there needs to be a complete lockdown in which only essential workers necessary to fight the virus can leave their homes, all with whatever protective clothing and equipment they need to prevent transmission of the virus. There needs to be widespread testing and the isolation and treatment of all those infected. To further reduce the virus’ transmission, the wearing of face masks needs to be rapidly introduced across the population. The government also needs to take economic measures to ensure the population’s welfare is protected during the lockdown. The government’s current priority of aiding the banks and some companies does not remotely address the needs of the population during this crisis.

The Labour Party should not give any support to a government that has almost the worst record in the world on the coronavirus pandemic and is endangering tens of thousands of lives. It is a serious mistake not to stand up for the population and defend people’s lives from the policies of this grotesque government. No consideration at all should be given to joining a national unity government. There should be no collusion with those responsible for this disaster. Instead Labour should be mounting a determined campaign, denouncing the lack of appropriate action by the government and demanding that the saving of lives is put first – which requires the government to abandon its current approach that threatens the population with a disaster.