By Joan Twelves
Covid-19 has dominated all our lives for the past year, and it’s not going away. 130,000 have died and hundreds of thousands are facing grief, loss and long-term illness. Unless there is a change of strategy, tens of thousands more will die.
Most of the Covid deaths in the UK could have been prevented if Johnson’s government had adopted a different approach – an approach based on elimination rather than containment – the Zero Covid approach.
We cannot and must not accept ‘living with the virus’ any longer. Government advisers admit that such a strategy is likely to involve a further 30,000 to 80,000 deaths.
That’s 200,000 acceptable deaths – 200,000 preventable deaths.
No death is acceptable if it is preventable
Johnson likes to say the government has done everything it could. But if it were serious about preventing deaths, it would at the very least –
- properly fund the NHS and its staff,
- provide the highest quality PPE,
- scrap Serco’s test and failing-to-trace system,
- provide full financial and practical support to those required to self-isolate, quarantine or shield,
- fund local authorities for the crucial work they are doing,
- ventilate classrooms and workplaces and make whatever structural changes are necessary to enable safe social distancing,
- provide kids with laptops and broadband,
- enforce health and safety laws,
- deal with cramped and overcrowded living conditions which allow the virus to keep spreading amongst our poorest communities.
Instead it has boasted of world-beating this and world-beating that, when the only thing world-beating about its approach has been the death toll and crashing economy. It has squandered billions enriching private companies who have failed to deliver – billions which could have been spent addressing the class, racial and gender inequalities, as well as the dire discrimination faced by disabled people, exposed by their response to the pandemic.
The Zero Covid approach is one which values human lives before profit, which values the health of us all before the wealth of the few.
There are many misconceptions about Zero Covid. For starters, it does not mean endless lockdowns. The reverse – it means an end to this cycle of half-hearted on-off lockdowns. It is based on the strategy humanity across the world has learnt to pursue when faced with a pandemic: trace, isolate and support to stop the spread; vaccinate if you can. Why is that so difficult this time around? Climate change means more, not fewer, pandemics in the future. We need to learn the lessons and get it right next time.
Critics say that zero Covid is a fantasy. But it is living with a deadly virus which is the fantasy. No country is ‘livingwith the virus’. But a number have charted a way through the pandemic by pursuing an elimination strategy – driving down community transmission and using local test and trace systems to stop new outbreaks. The UK’s vaccine rollout is vital, but will not end the pandemic on its own, not when the pandemic is global, prone to variants and mutations, and vaccine nationalism is on the rise.
Of course, we can’t totally eradicate the Covid-19 virus – but reducing and aiming to eliminate community transmission is possible – as we can see from New Zealand’s five deaths per one million population and Vietnam’s 0.4 per million, compared to the UK ‘s 1,828 deaths per million, which even beats Brazil and the USA.
Critics like to point out that New Zealand is small. So it is worth noting that Vietnam’s population is 98 million compared to the UK’s 68 million.
In the past week the BBC has reported how Iceland is now virtually Covid-free, with just 20 active cases and 29 deaths. The Guardian in the Tale of Two Islands concluded its report on Taiwan (22 million people, ten deaths, 1,000 documented cases, 0.4 per million) with:
“It all comes down to government clarity and transparency,” said Chen. “You have to let the people know what the government is trying to do.”
But while the lived experience of Sars gave an urgency to Taiwan’s planning, the conclusions drawn were researched and published extensively.
There was nothing stopping the British government, or others, from learning from them in the intervening years. But perhaps because of British exceptionalism, perhaps because other coronavirus epidemics – Sars, Mers – had been contained far from Europe, the UK chose to follow its own deadly path instead.”
It’s never too late to save lives
It’s not too late to urge both Labour and the Government to change their strategy from containment, from living with the virus, to suppression and elimination. Both SAGE and Indie SAGE scientists are already talking about a fourth surge in the autumn hitting the young and unvaccinated if we don’t start getting it right.
Professor Michael Baker, the New Zealand epidemiologist, says – ‘Reaching zero cases doesn’t depend on a country’s size but on strong leadership’.
Real opposition means strong leadership
Labour’s Conference in September may seem a long time away. And it would be great if Labour’s leadership showed strong leadership now by challenging the basis of the Tories’ containment approach to the pandemic by advocating the real alternative.
There have been so many times during the last twelve months where the Johnson government left open goals in its treatment of the pandemic. Labour could have championed education workers and parents fighting for safe schools, could have pressed for the benefit uplift to be extended to all claimants, could have demanded an end to handing out contracts to Serco and other leeches on our NHS, could have demanded a change of approach and strategy.
Instead it is seen as complicit with the Tories’ incompetence and corruption. How else can the Tories’ poll lead and Labour’s ever-sinking popularity be explained? The success of the NHS-led vaccine programme may be giving a temporary boost to Johnson, but those thousands who have lost family members and friends, who have worked night and day in the most fraught and stressful of circumstances, whose kids have lost their hopes of a future, who have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods and dreams, they won’t forget. Nor will they forgive either Government or Opposition for their leadership failures.
Covid is the number one priority
Momentum is currently organising a Policy Primary to determine which motions to Conference it should back. It would be unconscionable if this year of all years Labour did not discuss the Covid Pandemic. It has to be the number one priority. And it has to be a discussion based not just on criticising the Tories for doing too little too late or lining their chums’ pockets, but on a real alternative approach based on social solidarity. Anything else is endorsing social murder.
Zero Covid’s Conference motion is below. It not only calls for a change of strategy but also links that to how ecological destruction will undoubtedly result in more lethal and uncontrollable pandemics, which is why a green recovery plan has to go hand in hand with a Zero Covid approach.
Word limits mean much has had to be omitted and the politics of the pandemic are fast moving. We anticipate topical amendments and want CLPs to put similar motions closer to the Labour Party’s closing date of 13th September.
The campaign to beat the pandemic
Voting in the Momentum Policy Primary is not the only way you can support Zero Covid. We are a grassroots activist campaign of individual supporters and affiliated organisations. Our supporters come from a range of political parties or none. Our aim is to build a movement to force UK policy makers to adopt an elimination strategy. Our structure allows for local groups to establish themselves and have a say in the running of the campaign. Coordinating our work centrally are teams of volunteers that cover areas such as social media, science and health advisory, press relations and mobilisation. We are part of the Zero Covid Coalition.
We are currently campaigning on workplace safety, for Serco to be sacked and for local authority public health experts to be funded to run local Track and Trace programmes. We support campaigns such as the People’s Covid Enquiry, the call for an official statutory investigation into the UK government’s response to the pandemic, and the international Call for a People’s Vaccine for patents on the intellectual property rights of vaccines to be waived.
We can provide speakers for meetings, rallies and political and trade union branches.
Zero Covid’s Labour Party Conference motion
Title: Covid-19 pandemic
- The appalling loss of lives and livelihoods due to the Tory government’s incompetence, corruption and refusal to adopt and implement effective measures to drive down community transmission and eliminate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
- That this has been exacerbated by a decade of austerity, privatisation and cuts to public services, especially the NHS and local authorities.
- That the expensive failure of the outsourced Serco Test and Trace system has contributed to this disaster.
- That individuals have been consistently blamed for systemic and policy failures and not provided with sufficient support through decent sick pay, grants, loans, benefits and other wide-ranging assistance in order to be able to self-isolate, shield, work from home and/or home-school.
- That climate change and ecological destruction make future pandemics more likely and that the pandemic is a global issue that demands international solidarity.
- The commitment of the millions of workers and volunteers, in the UK and globally, who have supported their communities, provided dedicated healthcare, and demonstrated scientific and medical brilliance.
- The UK’s vaccine programme, rolled out and administered by the NHS and local volunteers.
Conference calls for:
- Labour to adopt now and in the event of any future similar pandemics policies aimed at the elimination, rather than the containment, of the spread of the disease, working with trade unions and public health experts.
- A forward-looking recovery plan based on the Green New Deal.
Joan Twelves is a community, trade union and Labour Party activist. She is a member of the Zero Covid Steering Committee and a former Leader of Lambeth Council. Her occasional blogs can be found at https://joantwelves.wordpress.com/
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