By late Monday afternoon we will know just how lucky Boris Johnson feels.
We will also know whether Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty – reported to be deeply concerned about a rush to open schools wholesale on March 8th – is going to play the role of a Fauci, by refusing to be window dressing for a move he knows will cost lives, or that of a Birx, grimacing through whatever “form of words” Downing Street comes up with to massage its intent.
The government – not for the first time – is sending contradictory signals. The Education Unions, all of them, are not. They describe the prospect of schools being open to all students from March 8th as “reckless”. (1)
While the government is saying that it will only publish the Scientific advice after the event – an indication that they are not at all sure that it supports a big bang – what we do know appears not to.
As a result of the lockdown, infections are coming down quite fast. Halving every 15 days. With the infections on 18 Feb running at just over 12,000 – other things being equal – they would still be at just under 6,000 a day on March 8th; well above where they were in September last year the last time this was tried (1,295 on September 1st). And we should all recall what happened then. This time round, we are looking at a daily infection rate five times worse than then with a virus that is considered up to 70% more contagious.
At the current rate of decline, the projection is that infection rates would take until the Easter holidays to be down to 1000 a day. Add the two weeks off for Easter with all other restrictions in place and we could be down to 250 a day by mid April. That is a level at which the virus could be hounded to domestic extinction with a proper test and trade system, run through the Health Service and Local Authorities not SERCO.
The government, instead, wants to rely on vaccines and a lot of hope – and probably some contradictory forms of words as the big bang blows up in our faces. Caution with freedom. Recklessness with responsibility. What more can you expect from us? The buck stops with you. If they do go for this, it will be seen as a green light by the take it on the chin brigade, who want the economy re-opened regardless of the casualties. In the words of Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle Price “The moment you open schools up then there no excuse for not opening up the rest of the economy”.
While there has been a real but marginal impact of vaccinations on infections among the over 80s, this has no bearing at all on schools. No children will be vaccinated. No vaccine has been licensed for the under 16s. Very few teachers or TAs will have had even one injection. At the moment, the age groups which has had the slowest trajectory of decline in infections are young adults (18-24) and primary school age children (5-12). “Researchers say that this may be because a significant proportion of primary pupils have still been in classrooms during lockdown”. (2) The current level of attendance in Primary is around 20-25%. Bump this back up to the pre pandemic norm of 95% and how hard is it to predict whats going to happen?
The impact of a partial reopening – on the lines being tried in Scotland from Monday – is likely to be damaging enough, with primary schools becoming a permanent viral reservoir. Their experience must be watched closely to see what happens, though it must be noted that Scotland has an infection rate that is lower than that in England (1:180 compared to 1:115) and the two weeks between Monday and March 8th is a short period to provide anything definitive about how quickly the virus rebounds. However, opening all schools for all students and all educators is bound to slow down the rate of infection decline significantly and, in the worst case, may even reverse it.
The Education unions, parents, independent SAGE and others are arguing for damage limitation. That if there is to be a partial widening of access to schools from March 8th, this should be on a limited basis and the results studied before considering wholesale reopening. That appears to be the plan in Wales, with Early Years and Infants back next week but a projected fuller opening for the rest of Primary and some Secondary year groups contingent on a continuing improvement in infection reduction. A government concerned with public health would listen to them. Labour should back them – and call for the Zero Covid strategy that is within our grasp, but the Tories fail to sieze
100,000 now dead. One of the highest totals in the world. Still in the thick of it.
There is a certain sort of Tory who is either in denial about the severity of Coronavirus, or who sees it as an invigorating social Darwinist challenge that will make our society leaner and fitter as part of the bracing new Brexit Britain by killing off the unproductive elderly; or anyone in the workforce with the sort of “underlying conditions” which might require them to claim sick pay from time to time.
Even as the winter wave and new more infectious variants were forcing the government into a far stricter lockdown last week to sustain their bottom line – avoiding a collapse in the Health Service that could prove fatal to them too – a member of the “COVID Recovery Group” of back bench Tory MPs raged in the Evening Standard about Education Secretary. “Gavin Williamson’s saving grace is that he wanted schools to stay open but he was crushed by the Health Department and Cabinet Office. If he had more clout he could have told Health to f*** off.”
Telling Health to “f*** off” indeed.
SAGE told the government before New Year that – with the new infectious variant – it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 unless schools were shut. They nevertheless pressed on regardless until slightly beyond the last minute; closing most schools down a day after they had partially reopened. However, unlike in the Spring, they have kept Nurseries open, and initially widened the essential worker list so that more kids could come in. Trying to accelerate even as they were pressing on the brake. The effect was that three or four times as many were in by the end of the first week back; requiring another screeching u turn to get the number down again. With a more infectious virus, and looser restrictions than in the Spring, the trajectory of infections is unlikely to come down rapidly, even if the vaccination programme hits its targets.
This illustrates why Boris Johnson’s Tory government is presiding over a health and economic disaster. Influenced by the sort of libertarian, economy first thinking that sees human life in instrumental terms – and makes a hard nosed calculation that those likely to die are disproportionately not people like them, which allows them to use phrases like “take it on the chin” with a certain devil may care insouciance – they have sought to “balance” economic concerns with health concerns. No such balance is possible. Attempts to reopen the economy before the virus is eliminated can’t fire on all cylinders even before the virus gets back out there and starts spreading wildly again. So we have a sort of macabre hokey cokey approach which prolongs the crisis on all fronts.
Its hard to imagine a Labour government doing half as badly, or being give a tenth as much indulgence – either by the media or the opposition.
Tony Blair – who is advising Matt Hancock – made several comments this week in the Evening Standard which are both revealing and characteristically ignore the fundamentals. He simultaneously drops the bombshell that on current polices it will take “two or three years” to deal with the pandemic – TWO OR THREE YEARS – notes that the UK government has been “behind the curve” every step of the way, then lets Johnson off the hook; arguing that “no government” has done any better. Really? New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, China? All these countries have had a COVID elimination strategy; and it has worked. All are now fully active societies with recovering economies. Hard to imagine from here right now, but its never too late to do the right – effective – thing.
The charge sheet against Johnson is plain. Failure to
lock down early when they knew what was coming,
shut off air travel from well heeled business travelers,
use the potential for social mobilisation shown in the rapid growth of local mutual self help groups,
set up an effective track and trace system; outsourcing it to SERCO rather than using GPs and local authorities,
and, most damning, failure to press on with the initial lock down to the point that infections were so low and rare that an effective track and trace system could have squashed any further outbreaks.
Projections of the decline in infections in mid May indicated that – other things being equal – sticking with the restrictions in the first lockdown could have eliminated domestic infections at some point in June. Instead they thought they could “manage” the situation and “live with” the virus; started lifting the restrictions and allowed the genie back out of the bottle; with the results that are all around us.
At the moment their approach seems to be a variant on the Great Barrington Declaration. They aim to vaccinate the most vulnerable, then remove restrictions to allow the rest of us to take our chances while explicitly ruling out an elimination strategy. Given that vaccination and having had the virus only confers a certain immunity for a limited time – 5 to 6 months – and vaccinating the entire population will take longer than that, the problem is obvious. This inevitably means that the virus will continue to evolve – probably to be more infectious than it currently is – because that’s how evolution works – unless it is eliminated.
Labour’s policy throughout has been defined by a search for “national consensus”, which has taken the form of tactical criticism on points of detail, but no alternative strategy. At points Keir Starmer was pressing the government from the wrong side, flagging up an “exit strategy” as the key issue during the first lockdown – rather than an “elimination strategy” within which “exit” would have been implicit – and for schools to open before it was safe to do so. This is in contrast with the approach of the teaching unions – especially the NEU – which have followed the science and put health first. Thousands of Section 44 safety letters generated from a 400,000 strong NEU meeting on the last day of the Xmas break will have helped nudge the government in the right direction. Slightly stronger calls from the front bench now are being driven by just how bad things are getting, but are too often phrased hesitantly. Nurseries should “probably” close, and so on.
This approach helps explain why a recent YouGov Poll showed that far more people blame each other than blame the government. This is absurd. An overwhelming majority of people both support and comply with restrictions brought in to stop infections. Despite mixed messages from the top and the campaigning of anti-lockdown head bangers like Nigel Farage, very, very few are breaking them lightly or rashly. Put bluntly, Boris Johnson is getting away with it – and persisting with a strategy that will cost many, many avoidable deaths – because the opposition is not pushing for the Zero COVID strategy we need to avoid them.
This Zero Covid rally at noon on Sunday 24th January should be built as widely as possible.
Diane Abbott MP
Howard Beckett , Unite the Union
Richard Burgon MP
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.
Rokhsana Fiaz , Mayor of Newham
Along with other leading scientists, campaigners and activists to be announced!
This is a possible motion that could be put to CLPs.
Draft Resolution for GC
XXXX CLP recognises that
The evolution of a more infectious variant of the COVID19 virus is leading to a rapid increase in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
The government’s approach has led to one of the highest per capita death toll among the larger countries. The objective of prioritising the economy has also been completely counter-productive as 900,000 people have already lost their jobs and international bodies such as the IMF and OECD forecast Britain will have one of the deepest recessions of any major economy.
the governments approach is exactly the opposite of that needed; which is to drive down infections to the point that they can be controlled and managed until the virus is eliminated, which has been achieved in a number of other countries.
We welcome the deployment of vaccines as a way to speed up this elimination, but it is clear that the government has already mishandled the roll-out and its vaccination programme is not going to prevent new cases and deaths for weeks or months. We believe that the Party nationally – and the front bench in Parliament – should be calling for a zero COVID strategy – designed to eliminate the virus. That requires
A serious lockdown to squash transmission to a point that the virus can be eliminated, the closure of all non-essential workplaces, schools, colleges and universities.
Full economic support for everyone affected.
Overhauling test and trace through the Health Service and Local Authorities so that it actually works, and full financial support for those in isolation.
An economic recovery plan to regenerate the economy that also transforms it by investing in green transition on the scale proposed by the TUC – which could create 1.2 million jobs, stave off a recession and avert poverty.
to send this resolution to our NEC representatives and appropriate Shadow Minsters and circulate members.
to investigate Zero Covid initiatives and discuss them at the next EC.
The UK economy has been hit worse by the Coronaviris crisis than any other in the developed world. (1) The OECD projects an 11.5% drop in economic activity.
Under the impact of this economic pressure, the government is compounding its problems by trying to unlock the economy before the virus is contained and without adequate systems for containing it; which sets us up for chaos.
The measures announced by the Chancellor on July 8th are hopelessly tactical, lack any strategic vision capable of mobilising people behind it; and amount to little more than a set of minor bungs to Conservative supporting sectors – the stamp duty holiday primarily benefiting private landlords, the £1000 retention bonus just a top up for firms that are secure enough to retain their workers until January.
The decisive question for any economic recovery is investment. If the government and/or companies invest, the economy is stimulated, work is done, goods are made and services provided, income is generated, tax revenue comes in, workers are hired and so on, in a virtuous cycle.
The problem we have is that we have a government which believes that the purpose of economic activity is not “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, nor the most efficient use of available resources to enrich the lives of the people, or address deep rooted threats to our civilisation like poverty or ignorance, let alone the degradation of the environment we live in and the breakdown of the climactic conditions we need to survive. They believe that the purpose of the economy, and society come to that, is to produce profits. All else flows from that.
That’s why they are not committed to state led investment to put as many solar panels as possible on as many roofs as we can find and wind farms in all the potential places, to retrofit our housing and public building stock to reduce energy demand and bills, to strategically invest in urban mini forests and rewild swathes of the countryside, to electrify our remaining railways – to mention just four initiatives that could generate jobs while cutting carbon emissions as drastically as we need to. Instead, they are giving tiny nudges to the private sector in the hope that they will invest – in anything, they are not fussed about what – instead.
The problem with that is that they won’t. The private sector is risk averse and will only invest if it thinks a profit can be turned on the investment. If the experience of ten years of austerity – in which this approach was tried to death – isn’t enough to convince, a recent survey of company finance directors by Deloitte should be enough to administer the coup de grace. Sixty five percent of the companies surveyed said that they will be cutting investment in the next three years.
That is because eighty percent of them expect their revenues to decrease in the next year.
This is underlined by the latest projection from the Office for Budget Responsibility. And what a reassuringly anal retentive title that is; conjuring images of mean spirited accountants in their counting house, counting out their money, and taking care of the pennies so the pounds can take care of themselves. They project that – left to itself – the economy will not recover until the end of 2022 and unemployment will rise rapidly to 10% in the meantime. One in ten workers having to claim and scrape by on Universal Benefit.
For the government’s approach, there is an even more serious problem. Investment from the private sector is contingent on profitability, and most of the companies in the survey are cutting dividends to share holders and cutting down on share buybacks, which inflate the salaries of top executives. No profits, no “animal spirits”, no investment. Boris Johnson can wave all the Union Jacks he likes; his patriotic verbal bluster does not affect the hard nosed financial calculations currently being made, except, perhaps negatively as the gap between his “global Britain” rhetoric and the reality of what we are heading for at the end of the year is clearly understood in business circles.
This is overwhelmingly the case for manufacturing, in which 90% cut payments. The Manufacturing and Engineering employers organisation MAKE UK reported on 20 July that only 15% of companies are back to full time working and begged for an extension of the furlough scheme for another six months to help prevent the worst loss of skilled jobs since the 1980s. (2) With the cut off point for the scheme in October, firms are already starting redundancy processes so they can carry out the legally required consultation period before the axes fall. This is on a very large scale in manufacturing, with just over a half of them planning redundancies in the next 6 months. Other hard hit sectors, like hospitality and retail, are not going to be saved by a few half price pizza vouchers for slow days in half of August.
The Chancellor’s statement that “this is not a time for orthodoxy and ideology” is about to be exposed. Without drastic government action, and direct investment, thousands and thousands of workers are about to lose their jobs, which will prevent any recovery taking place at all and put people all over the country into desperate straits. The ending of the eviction ban this week just as this kicks in adds a whole extra layer of insecurity and threat.
No doubt the government considers this bracing and character building because, instead of investing, they are planning to cut regulation and launch twenty Free Ports, which will suck such investment as there is to zones that don’t pay tax and blight everywhere else. As if what is holding these companies back from the scale of investment that is needed is the “red tape” that holds them to minimally acceptable standards of behavior towards their employees and the environment.
Crucially, this is not what the company finance directors told Deloitte. They did not say they were primarily concerned with regulation. They were very clear about the three factors which inhibited any investment plans.
1. The Coronavirus pandemic.
2. The prospect of a No Deal Brexit.
3. Worsening Geo-political conflicts (for which read Trump’s trade war with China and the fear that worse could follow). (3)
So, the three big issues preventing the private sector from investing are the central plank of the government’s agenda – “get Brexit done”- their willingness to be dragooned into a fight with China by the USA and their failure to get on top of the virus.
The paradox of this is that had a Corbyn Labour government been elected in December neither a supine response to pressure from the USA to engage in a trade war, nor a no deal Brexit would have been on the agenda. Nor is it possible to imagine that such a government would have handled the Coronavirus crisis worse than this one has. Almost without exception, the countries that have performed most catastrophically have been wedded to neo-liberalism. The allegiance of the business class to Conservative rule therefore comes across as a form of self harm, but underlines the essential perception that, for them, economic well being, even of their own firms, comes second to continued control of the economy by their class. If they are prepared to hammer themselves in this way, the harm done to the rest of us is collateral damage that barely registers on their radar.
Faced with the scale of this crisis, the response to all these issues from the Labour opposition should be clearer, louder and sharper and demonstrate the vision that the Conservatives lack.
The Coronavirus pandemic. Its clear from this that squashing the virus down to nothing is a precondition for a serious economic recovery. That’s what was done and is happening in China. And New Zealand. That should be Labour policy. Not hinting that the UK will be “left behind” if it tries to do so. Particularly because the government here is instead hoping that the number of cases will continue to decline, even as they remove the conditions that enabled it to do so. Scientific advice, including from SAGE, is that this is rash and unlikely to come off. Countries in Europe that reopened when their level of infections was lower than the UK are now facing a rebound. While the UK is as yet nowhere near being in the sort of mess the USA is in, with exponentially rising infections and a daily death rate double what it was last month, there’s a sense that Johnson is looking down the barrel of the threat is crossing his fingers, touching wood and feels lucky. Labour has called for the furlough scheme to be maintained in specific sectors, which is a sensible bottom line and the least that could be expected from a half competent government, but to retain jobs we need a far stronger commitment to a jobs guarantee that involves retraining and redeployment from sectors that are going belly up and to actually put the vision and plans for a green transformation right up front as an alternative to the collapse that the Conservatives are about to preside over. A Green Jobs campaign is imperative. The UK commitment to this – £3 billion -is excruciatingly small.
No Deal Brexit. 65% of companies have made no preparation for conditions after 31 December because they don’t know what they are going to be. Here we go, over the cliff. What the wreckage will look like on the beach next year is anyone’s guess. Labour made a mistake in not pushing for a transition extension. We should argue for a unilateral declaration of continuity with existing arrangements until a deal can be made and ask the EU to reciprocate.
Connivance in the growing US Cold War with China. This is already impacting on inward investment. Tik Tok has already shelved plans to build its HQ outside of China in London – losing a potential 5 000 jobs. The removal of Huawei from the 5G network, and proposals to extend this to 4 and 3 G, will both cost directly and cut the efficiency of the broad band service available (because Huawei technology is in advance of any of its competitors). The increasingly aggressive campaign from Ian Duncan Smith and his allies on the right of the Conservative Party to join with the US in breaking the world economy into two spheres of influence will be very damaging for all concerned – even if, as too often happens, trade war does not lead to the real thing as it escalates. A nervousness about this on the part of the government, who have given quite a slow time scale to strip out Huawei technology and hinted to the company that they are doing so under duress and might back off once no longer under Donald Trump’s heel (so much for taking back control), has not been matched by any doubts from Labour’s foriegn policy team, who are trying to prove to the US that they are back to being Atlanticist true believers and have been urging the government on. This is a disastrous policy that should be reversed.
Anneliese Dodd’s comment “If people felt Labour was only criticising and not suggesting solutions, they would question what on earth we’re doing” is quite right, but requires some solutions to actually be put. That would mean
Argue for whatever action is necessary to protect public health and eliminate the virus as the fastest way to be able to regenerate social activity (not just the “economy”).
Put forward a plan for massive state led investment in green transition both as an end in itself and a way of generating the employment we need to avoid economic collapse.
Resist the demands from Trump for the world economy to be broken in two and for the UK to tie itself to the less dynamic half – with the USA projected to account for 3.3% of world growth in the next two years to China’s 51%, according to the IMF, and developing countries, most of which will align with China, accounting for over 40% of the rest.
Argue against a No Deal Brexit and for an extension of current arrangements to prevent even further economic disruption as we go into 2021.
When my grandfather was a soldier in India, 100 years ago; he said that whenever there was trouble in a village – as there increasingly was as the Raj began to slip in the 1920s -they would send a detachment of troops to march through it to intimidate the villagers – flags flying, band playing, fixed bayonets, loads of shouting from NCOs and “bags of swank”. Gunboat diplomacy worked the same way. Send a battleship with huge guns capable of smashing buildings like eggshells into the principal port of any country not toeing the line of the Pax Britannica and the implied threat was often enough for a peaceful solution; that allowed the everyday violence of colonial exploitation to continue to run smoothly.
On December 1st six military helicopters – three twin engined heavy duty Chinooks at the rear with three lighter dragonfly looking types ahead of them – were circling in London’s airspace just ahead of Trump’s visit; noisily and often enough to be noticeable and noticed. There was something edgy and nervy about it. On December 4th, at the end of it, a low flying olive drab monstrosity of a Hercules transport aircraft cruised with almost impossible slowness over my head while I was leafleting on Wakeman’s Hill – heading, no doubt, for Northolt to pick up his enormous armoured motorcade – those 12 black vehicles that filled the Mall from one end to the other at self important speed. The Sopranos with state power. The last time Donald Trump came, we were similarly buzzed by evil looking Osprey helicopters sending the same message. The boss had come to case the place and inspect his future province – an overt display of a significant shift in power from here to there, that Boris Johnson is conniving at and Jeremy Corbyn is resisting.