The government has announced a series of draconian measures to try and prevent foreign COVID variants from entering the UK. But in Tory hands, such steps will not help. The left must fight to put workers in control.

The government has announced a series of draconian measures to try and prevent foreign COVID variants from entering the UK. But in Tory hands, such steps will not help. The left must fight to put workers in control.

Health secretary Matt Hancock recently announced that from next Monday, 15 February, anyone coming into Britain from so-called ‘red list’ countries would have to face ten days’ enforced stay in a quarantine hotel.

Going further, the Tory minister also stated that anyone found to be lying about their travel history could face up to ten years in prison.

The double standards and hypocrisy of this government are astounding – yet not in the slightest bit surprising.

Throughout the pandemic, no bosses have been prosecuted for breaking COVID safety rules. And Dominic Cummings wasn’t even sacked for his mid-lockdown excursion to Barnard Castle.

Yet, once again, ordinary people are being scapegoated by the Tories, threatened with draconian punishments for the smallest misdemeanor.

No trust in the Tories

boris biohazardNevertheless, the ten-year sentence has been approvingly cheered on by Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, who have spent weeks demanding that Britain beef up its border controls.

The Labour leader recently described the South African variant as “the greatest threat to the UK”, and has consistently argued that the Tories should completely shut the UK’s borders.

Proper lockdowns and temporary restrictions are certainly necessary to curb contagion and protect workers and their communities.

Indeed, we have seen many examples during the coronavirus crisis of organised workers – such as teachers in the NEU – taking matters into their own hands, fighting to close their workplaces for fear of infection.

And with each wave of the epidemic, there has been broad public support for lockdowns – always long before they have been brought in by this foot-dragging Tory government.

But the real lesson from the pandemic is that we cannot trust the Tories with our lives.

Under the direction of this government of crooks, tough borders will just mean hardship for workers and demonisation for migrants. Meanwhile, the real criminals – the bosses and their political representatives – will continue to get away with murder, and the virus will continue to spread.

To fight the pandemic and protect public health, we need to put workers in control.

Pulling up the drawbridge

In reality, the clamour to close Britain’s borders in order to protect the UK from ‘foreign mutants’ will likely be more effective at whipping up xenophobia than stopping COVID.

Let us not forget that the most transmissible variant of coronavirus yet discovered emerged in Kent, not Africa or Latin America. This strain is now predicted to sweep across the world and become the most dominant variant of COVID-19 globally.

In other words, it is emigrants from the UK, not immigrants into the country that we should be most worried about!

Furthermore, without an effective test-and-trace system, alongside material support to enable people to properly self-isolate, even the tightest of borders will be of little use. Individual cases will always slip through. And these must be tackled within communities – not just at the border.

Yet the Tories have made an utter mess of the test-and-trace programme by outsourcing it to private profiteers. Mass testing is currently being deployed in certain areas to try and identify cases of more dangerous COVID variants. But this is a case of too little, too late.

At the same time, the government is providing little-to-no help for those who do test positive or fall sick, and who need to quarantine.

Meanwhile, all of the vaccines currently being deployed in Britain are proven to stop severe disease from even the worst strains.

Speeding up the vaccination programme (e.g. through public ownership of the big pharmaceutical producers); stopping callous bosses from putting workers’ lives at risk; implementing a fully-functioning, publicly-owned-and-run test-and-trace system; and providing full sick pay and free quarantine accommodation for those who need to isolate: all these are therefore more important steps to prioritise than pulling up the drawbridge to those coming from abroad.

But why would the Tories do this, and draw attention to their own incompetence and recklessness, when they can just point the finger at others instead?

Fortress Britain

Covid cases soarMany have lavished praise on New Zealand for their ‘zero COVID’ approach. But it is often overlooked that this has been achieved in part through the use of ruthless border controls. This includes completely suspending asylum to the country for one year. (As an aside, it should be noted that at least in New Zealand, the state – not the individual – pays for the costs of quarantine hotels.)

Similarly, the Australian government has left thousands of its own citizens stranded abroad over the last year – an approach to immigration and asylum very much in line with its history of letting asylum seekers rot on Christmas Island.

In truth, as long as a disparity in vaccination rates exists between the advanced capitalists countries and the ‘developing’ world, a genuine zero COVID strategy would mean indefinite border controls.

And quite how countries such as Pakistan or South Africa are expected to reach zero cases when the imperialist powers are hoarding vaccines is unfortunately never explained.

As the Economist outlines in a recent editorial: “Outside the rich world, 85% of countries have yet to start their vaccination programmes. Until the billions of people who live in them have felt the prick of a needle, which may not be before 2023, they will remain fuel for the virus.”

Without a coordinated global plan to fight the virus, many scientists are now arguing that COVID will become endemic, rendering ‘zero COVID’ a utopian dream.

At some point, countries currently pursuing a ‘zero COVID’ strategy, such as New Zealand and China, will have to reopen their societies to the world again – a world contending with vastly differing vaccination rates and levels of cases.

In this context, as the same Economist article bluntly puts it: “Draconian policy makes no sense as a permanent defence.”

The need for socialist internationalism is clear. Only when the whole world’s health is secured can we truly claim to have subdued the virus. Erecting walls and turning the UK into ‘Fortress Britain’ is no solution.

Racist red list

Nevertheless, under pressure to bring COVID under control, Matt Hancock and the Tories are pushing the country in this direction, announcing a similar ban on asylum seekers from ‘red list’ countries to that brought in by New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern.

This red list is almost exclusively composed of countries from southern Africa and Latin America. But presumably that doesn’t bother this rich and racist Tory government, nor their reactionary mouthpieces in the media.

Botswana, for example, is on the red list, despite having very low case levels for months. It certainly seems strange to punish a successful ‘zero COVID’ country just for the virtue of being African. Meanwhile, the US – with almost a hundred thousand new cases every day – is not on the list.

The rich vs the rest

A key plank of this Tory policy is the introduction of quarantine hotels. The required ten-day stay in such an establishment is expected to cost each traveller the modest sum of £1,750.

While much of the focus has been on naughty holidaymakers, over nine million Britons weren’t born in the country. Many more have family abroad. This eye-watering charge effectively cuts these people off from their homes and families.

For example, the Guardian recently interviewed several people who were left stranded by the government’s new measures. This included Maria, a Portugese woman unable to get home to Cambridge. “Travel is almost a privilege now,” she explained. “You have to be rich enough to pay for quarantine.”

The wealthy, meanwhile, can happily carry on with their travels. Indeed, the Knightsbridge Circle, a private concierge service for the elite that charges £25,000 per year, is whisking its members off to the Middle East to skip the queue and get a jab in exotic locations such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The rest of us, of course, have to patiently wait for our turn back home.

As ever under capitalism, it’s one rule for the millionaires and another for the millions.

Sick joke of self-isolation

There’s also no guarantee this ‘hotel quarantine’ scheme will be a success. Already, the Financial Times reports that, “with just days to go before the quarantine system comes into force, the government has struck deals with only 16 hotels to provide just 4,600 rooms – a fraction of the estimated 28,000 that will be needed over the first month of the scheme.”

Even ignoring the Tories’ dismal track record in tackling the pandemic, it is easy to see how the scheme could descend into chaos.

In Australia, for example, one such quarantine hotel was actually the centre of an outbreak – a completely unsurprising outcome, when you consider the realities of locking thousands of travellers from across the world up together, with limited access to fresh air or open space.

The government’s focus on border control seems especially misplaced when you consider how hard it is for many ordinary people to isolate when they have symptoms inside the country.

Many workers have limited access to sick pay. Those in precarious work, meanwhile, are often forced to work even when testing positive or showing symptoms. And for many working-class families living in cramped accommodation, the idea of isolating is laughable.

Fight for class demands

Tories out General election now Sept 2019The fact that the Labour leadership has focussed more on closing borders than on workplace safety comes as no surprise. After all, instead of supporting the teachers in their struggle for safe schools, Starmer is busy wrapping himself in the Union Jack in a vain attempt to win voters.

Instead, the left should be emphasising and fighting for class-based demands that put workers in control and make the rich pay for this crisis. These demands should include:

  • Full sick pay for all workers, and 100% wages for those required to furlough.
  • A shutdown of all non-essential businesses, and the establishment of democratic workers’ committees to ensure workplace safety.
  • A publicly-owned test-and-trace system and the nationalisation of Big Pharma.
  • And the requisitioning of hotels and hostels – not just at the border, but in communities – to provide free accommodation for those who need to isolate.

Put workers in control

Workers controlThe chaotic and corrupt capitalist system is incapable of dealing with this crisis. Indeed, it is responsible for exacerbating it.

The New York Times reported, for example, that a factory in Miami has 30 million N95 masks sitting unsold – at a time when there is a critical shortage of PPE across America.

Back in Britain, one of Matt Hancock’s old chums was given a £14m contract to produce PPE. And countless other government contracts have been handed out on the basis of similar Tory cronyism.

Instead of this corruption and waste, on the basis of socialist planning, we could ensure that medical equipment was equitably and democratically distributed according to need.

Meanwhile, idle properties belonging to spivs and speculators could be expropriated and put to public use – like housing the homeless, or allowing people to quarantine for free.

Rather than blithely handing over more power to this government of criminals and charlatans, the left and the labour movement must fight to give organised workers the power to run society.

Only by taking control of the economy out of the hands of the capitalist class can we take back control of our lives – and control the virus.