Pandemic leading to political crisis

Boris Johnson

By Mark Buckley

The latest wave of the pandemic threatens to turn into an outright crisis for the Tory government. The spread of the Covid-19 is rapidly increasing. According to the UK Health Security Agency, new Omicron infections in the UK are running at 200,000 a day, dwarfing the number of officially confirmed cases, which yesterday were 54,661.

The new measures forced on the government represent very significant damage to the reputation of the government. Even the possibility of a government collapse cannot be ruled out. At the same time, the consistent advocates of a Zero Covid policy have been entirely vindicated.

The Tory government has effectively promised the public that its response to the pandemic, which relies almost exclusively on vaccinations, meant that there would be no more lockdowns or significant restrictions.

This is important to large sections of the population, and not just the business interests that the government has represented throughout the crisis. The millions of self-employed got almost no financial support during the lockdown, and very few others can live long on statutory sick pay (SSP) of just £96.35 per week.

Political fall-out

So, even the partial government U-turn on restrictions has blown the government’s credibility on an issue which affects the entire population very directly. Millions will be anxious about the possibility of further lockdowns, while the vast bulk of the population are also extremely concerned about the spread of the virus itself, because it is a serious threat.

This is shown by the long queues for booster jabs as the new measures were applied on Monday December 13, in the half-empty roads and public transport as many more worked from home and in the collapse of the government website offering home-testing lateral flow kits, which also adds to the widespread perception of government incompetence.

The political effect is immediate, with the government having to rely on Opposition votes to get the measures through. Underlining the undemocratic nature of the British parliamentary system, the new rules were in the form of statutory instruments, which cannot be amended. Otherwise, the Labour left at least would have pressed for additional measures, possibly such as ventilation and masks in schools, a viable level of SSP payments, a 15% pay rise for nurses to address the crisis in the NHS, and a working test and trace system.

By contrast Starmer is extremely unlikely to use the new opening to press for policies that are in the interests of the population, as he has backed Johnson to the hilt. His ’patriotic address to the nation’ the night after Johnson’s announcement called for no additional measures and provided no opposition. Instead, it was clearly designed to bolster Johnson’s precarious position ahead of the parliamentary votes.

Yet despite Starmer’s support for Johnson, the Labour lead in the opinion polls continues to widen. At the same time it remains to be seen whether Starmer’s informal pact with the LibDems will undermine that trend following the North Shropshire by-election. The LibDems are tipped to do well in a seat where Labour came second in 2019. If they do record a strong showing with Labour in third, the risk is that the slumping Tory vote could be diverted to the party that was central to austerity in 2010, tripling tuition fees and bombing Libya into a failed state.

In any event, Tory fortunes seem likely to worsen in the short-term. The onset of the Omicron variant, an NHS wholly ill-equipped to prepare even for a normal winter, rising prices in the New Year, and the general air of sleaze and corruption surrounding this government are not a favourable backdrop for the government. Tory in-fighting will rise as their poll rating falls.

Zero Covid

Both Johnson and Starmer have pursued a failed response to the pandemic. In contrast, the steadfast band of scientists and medics, mainly but not wholly in Independent SAGE who were not cowed by the government and continued to argue for much stronger measures to combat the virus have been proven correct. The same can be said of the small band of political leaders, mainly on the Labour left, who continued to campaign for a Zero Covid strategy and have been fully vindicated.

The chart below shows the current per capita Covid-19 cases for Britain compared to Europe and Asia. Britain is once again worse than Europe, although the region as a whole has some of the highest new case rates in the world.  In general, the richest countries including the US, have had the worst outcomes in the pandemic, despite better medical facilities and hoarding vaccines, not releasing them to poorer countries and blocking the waiving of vaccine patents.

They have pursued failed policies, relaying almost solely on vaccines, and taking no measures to suppress the virus.  High cases and deaths, as well as new mutations were all predictable and predicted.

But both the level and trend in Asian cases also shows that these policies are avoidable. A more cautious approach can lead to vastly better outcomes. Of course China leads the way, even against the strong US-led international campaign to end Zero Covid government policies, which unfortunately worked in both Australia and New Zealand. 

Had China followed the Western model of responding to the pandemic, there would now be almost 3.5 million Chinese people who had died from the virus. Instead, there are fewer than 5,000.

The resolute band of scientists, medical experts, politicians, trade unionists and campaigners in Britain who continued to argue for an alternative have no interest in crowing about their correct judgement, not least because the objective situation is so dire. But they have every right to demand a wider hearing and wider support as the new phase of the crisis unfolds.  A Zero Covid strategy remains the only viable alternative to the current policy of ‘learning to live (die) with the virus’.

The latest wave of the pandemic threatens to turn into an outright crisis for the Tory government.

The new measures forced on it very significantly damage its credibility on an issue which affects the entire population very directly.

A Zero Covid strategy remains the only viable alternative to the current policy of ‘learning to live (die) with the virus’.