Zero Covid moves up the agenda

Ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients queueing outside a London hospital in December

By Mark Buckley

The British government is determined to conduct a unique and predictably disastrous experiment by easing all restrictions while the pandemic is raging.

As this poses such a grave threat to public health it has opened up a new political phase in the pandemic. The public wants ‘freedom day’ postponed and existing measures kept in place. Many unions have registered their opposition to certain key aspects of the easing measures, especially in relation to face masks on public transport and the lack of ventilation in schools. Commentators have also noted that ministers no longer talk about the easing measures as ‘irreversible’. Even the current Labour leadership has positioned itself as a partial critic of the government, although it supports the overall easing plan and makes only the mildest comments.

The objective situation is once again dire. New cases, hospitalisations and deaths are all rising rapidly. Supporters of the government policy direct attention to the much lower rate of hospitalisations and deaths compared to previous waves, which is probably a function of both vaccination and the lower average age of victims.

But this wave is only beginning, and the latest growth rates for hospitalisations and deaths mean that they will double every 10 to 14 days. The easing measures can only accelerate those growth rates, especially as nothing has been done to improve the private sector shambles of test and tracing, and there is completely inadequate support for self-isolation.

Instead, the government response to surging cases has been to reduce the testing and reporting of new cases, firstly in schools but now across the population by tinkering with the NHS app. The policy is now clearly herd immunity by infection and ministers know that the virus will spread rapidly. Government forecasts for daily new cases have soared to 100,000, presumably in the hope that any undershoot will be portrayed as success.

Their plans also disregard the effects of the spread of the virus on the incidence of Long Covid (estimated to affect 7% to 8% of all victims), on the immuno-compromised and on those who cannot be vaccinated. The government plans could threaten millions with long-term serious illness or long-term confinement.

It is also widely known that Covid-19 has hit Black and Asian communities in this country with particular ferocity. This is nothing to do with genetics, but is a reflection of social conditions, where institutional racism infects every area life. Fears that this will be repeated in the planned third wave are well founded.

The public opposes easing now. A poll for the Observer showed 73% support the continued use of face masks in confined public spaces while 50% say that ‘freedom day’ should be postponed. Leaders of the main transport unions ASLEF, RMT and TSSA have all expressed opposition to removing the requirement for face masks on public transport. Teaching unions say government has given up on the huge numbers of children being infected and is simply waiting for the current term to end. Lecturers and student unions are concerned by the current upsurge in cases reported around many universities.

This pressure has been registered by Starmer, to the extent that he has criticised the government policy in advance of it being implemented, echoing the union complaints on face masks. There is too a demand for better ventilation in enclosed spaces.

This is a new development for a leadership which has supported the catastrophic Tory policies at every step. But it should be clear this is a wholly inadequate response, and ducks the key issues that could lead to sustained improvement, including maintaining restrictions, addressing the crises of test and trace and financially supported self-isolation.

At the same time, campaigners for Zero Covid policy have come under attack in both the Financial Times and The S*n. The media of finance capital and of the most reactionary oligarch may also be concerned that the line of the government on one of the most important current issues could become even more unpopular. The attack show that the only viable alternative to the government’s planned social murder by herd immunity is a Zero Covid strategy, which the labour movement needs to adopt in order to save lives and to prevent the attacks on wages and jobs.

The next meeting of the ZeroCovid Coalition is on Monday July 19, ‘No freedom day for the virus’. Details here.