Once again, in the face of a new wave of the virus, Boris Johnson has reluctantly bowed to the inevitable – announcing last night that the date for the loosening of all COVID restrictions would be delayed by four weeks.
But postponing so-called ‘Freedom Day’ by a month is not enough. In reality, the Prime Minister’s decision is the very minimum that is required.
Case numbers are already growing exponentially, thanks to the new ‘Delta’ variant, which is estimated to be over 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant ‘Alpha’ (i.e. Kent) variant. Maintaining the current level of lockdown will do nothing to reverse this surge, but will simply stop it from accelerating.
Under pressure from big business and Tory backbenchers, however, the government will not take the steps required to bring the virus under control. As ever, the Tories are putting profits before lives. The labour movement must organise to kick them out.
Over the weekend, in advance of yesterday’s announcement, the Prime Minister was emphasising the need for ‘caution’. But in reality, Boris “shopping trolley” Johnson is taking another massive gamble.
The government is placing all its bets on the vaccine rollout, with the latest data indicating that a double dose provides 96% and 92% chance of protection against hospitalisation for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines respectively.
In this respect, vaccines seem likely to soften the link between transmission and deaths. Nevertheless, allowing the virus to run away once again still presents huge risks to people’s health and lives.
For starters, even with the likelihood of fatality reduced, the law of numbers means that a predicted huge third wave would still lead to rising numbers of deaths – particularly amongst the millions of people who are yet to be double-jabbed.
And even on the current trajectory, there are fears that hospitals could be overwhelmed by the end of the summer. And all of this at a time when exhausted NHS staff are working flat-out to tackle the enormous backlog of patients that has built up over the past year, with a waiting list that currently stands at over five million.
In addition, there are the dangers posed by ‘long COVID’, with growing concerns about the severe lasting damage to people’s health – including in younger people – posed by non-lethal infection.
Finally, by allowing the virus to run rampant once again, the government is creating the ideal conditions for further – potentially more virulent – mutations to emerge: a large, unvaccinated population in which to spread freely; combined with an equally-large, vaccinated population, which places pressure on the virus to evolve evasive mechanisms.
Shifting the end of lockdown back by four weeks is therefore the very least that should be expected. To prevent another deadly outbreak would likely require the reintroduction of previous restrictions, until everyone is entirely vaccinated.
Such a strategy is supported by the growing scepticism amongst scientists towards the idea of any ‘herd immunity’ threshold being reached.
But the ever-reckless Boris Johnson – looking out for the profits of big business, and desperate to avoid a deepening rift within the Tory Party – cannot countenance such an idea.
Nor, it seems, is he able to learn the lessons from the past year when it comes to fighting the pandemic.
For starters, the Tories’ border and quarantine policy has been a fiasco.
The Delta variant was first identified in India, where it – in combination with the actions of the reactionary Modi government – was responsible for a complete catastrophe earlier this year. Yet India was only placed on the UK’s ‘red list’ of countries, to which travel is banned, on 23 April, long after this variant had already appeared in Britain.
Furthermore, the Tory government has continually failed to provide the necessary means for those infected to self-isolate. Without proper sick pay or free quarantine accommodation, no wonder this latest variant has been able to spread so widely, so fast.
And scandalously, whilst infection levels increase, fat-cat bosses are continuing to line their pockets with public money.
Yesterday, for example, parasitic outsourcing giant Serco announced a boost to projected profits, largely thanks to their continued involvement in the test-and-trace service. The company’s share price promptly rose by 5% in response to this news.
At the same time, the government has done nothing to address the problem of infection in schools, which are suspected to be an important contributor to the recent spread of the Delta variant.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, teachers and their unions have been calling for measures and funds to make schools safe, and to enable proper social distancing. But they have continually been ignored by Tory ministers, who are more keen on smashing the teaching unions than on taking their advice.
Their recent pathetic offer to help pupils catch-up on their learning shows how little the Tories really care about children’s education, despite their cynical rhetoric stating otherwise.
Finally, there is the question of global vaccination efforts.
The truth is that people in Britain will not be safe from COVID until the whole world is safe from COVID. As long as the virus is raging internationally, with hundreds of thousands of new cases being recorded every day, new (potentially vaccine-resistant) mutations will emerge. And even with the tightest border controls, these will find a way into ‘Fortress Britain’.
And yet the UK government – along with governments in all the advanced capitalist countries – are falling well short of what is required to address this vital issue. Indeed, these rich nations are hoarding vaccines and actively obstructing the most important step needed to tackle the pandemic.
At the recent G7 meeting, for example, which was hosted by Boris Johnson in Cornwall, world leaders pledged to provide poorer countries with one billion doses. But this is far below (less than 10% of) the estimated 11 billion shots that are required.
Similarly, Boris Johnson has refused to support a waver on patent rights for vaccines – all so that Big Pharma can continue to profit from death and misery.
The measures required to properly fight the pandemic are clear:
- Fully-fund the NHS. Reverse all privatisation and outsourcing. Bring private providers under public ownership. Give healthcare workers a 15% pay rise. Conduct a mass, union-led recruitment drive of nurses, doctors, and other NHS staff.
- Nationalise Big Pharma to enable an international plan of vaccine production and distribution.
- Bring the test-and-trace system entirely under public ownership and workers’ control. Kick out the parasites and profiteers.
- Expropriate empty properties, hotels, and hostels to provide free accommodation for those who need to quarantine. Provide full sick pay to all, along with 100% wages for workers required to furlough.
- Put workers in control of schools, healthcare, retail, and industry, with the establishment of democratic workplace committees. These must have the resources to implement any necessary health and safety measures, paid out of the bosses’ profits, and be given the power to decide whether workplaces should be open or shut.
- Make the bosses pay for this crisis. Fund all of the above, and any other necessary measures, by expropriating the wealth of the billionaires, who have continued to enrich themselves throughout the pandemic.
The Tories will never carry out any of these steps. As demonstrated on countless occasions, they will always prioritise the bosses’ profits over our lives. Even the PM’s former right-hand man, to protect his own interests, has shown how Johnson’s government has blood on its hands.
The problem, however, is that – under ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer’s leadership – Labour are refusing to provide any real opposition, or to support workers (such as teachers) who are fighting for safety. Indeed, rather than attacking this murderous Tory government, Starmer and the right wing are busy attacking the Labour left.
This is why the labour movement must mobilise to kick out the Tories, and kick out Starmer. Only on the basis of a clear socialist programme can we avert further disaster and fight the coronavirus crisis.
Tories out! Starmer out! Fight the virus with socialist policies!