By Joan Twelves
Einstein is purported to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
A shiver went down my spine and I thought of Einstein when Johnson said that the Government would be sticking to its Roadmap and planned to lift all restrictions on 21st June.
What happened to ‘Data Not Dates’?
When the Roadmap was published back in February, it said:
“Before taking each step, the Government will review the latest data on the impact of the previous step against four tests.
The tests are:
1. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.
2. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and
deaths in those vaccinated.
3. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put
unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
4. Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.”
Test 4 has not been met
Variant B1617.2 (the “Indian” variant) was designated a Variant of Concern on 7th May. (There are rumours that it wasn’t designated sooner so as not to divert attention from the 6th May elections.). Yet Step 3 – the opening up of indoor hospitality and entertainment, and the introduction of the Green List for foreign holidays – went ahead on 17th May.
Since then, the “Indian” variant has been surging across the UK, particularly in our poorest, most deprived communities. Its speed of transmission is greater than previous variants and, while vaccination seems to be working, 60 percent of the adult population have yet to be fully vaccinated, and the variant is spreading exponentially among younger people.
While young people are less likely to die from Covid, they are highly vulnerable to the devastating and life-changing effects of Long Covid. And they can spread it to their peers and unvaccinated at-risk adults. As the WHO explains: “When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates – and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.”
At the moment, the UK’s vaccination programme is in a racce against the virus’s ability to spread, mutate and vary to a point where the vaccines may not work. This is why local public health experts are crying out for more vaccines and for permission to vaccinate younger cohorts. Even though the vaccines take time to work, without a functioning Test and Trace system, they arethis government’s only defence against Covid.
We are on the cusp of a third wave
Germany recognises this and has barred UK travellers. Spain and Portugal may soon regret valuing the income from UK tourists more highly than the health of their citizens – understandable though their desire to restart their tourist industry is.
Alongside going ahead with Step 3 and then sticking to their plan to ease all restrictions on 21st June, there has been a marked shift in the Government’s approach. Some rules are being changed to guidance. So, you can only have 30 guests at your UK wedding but you may go on that holiday to an Amber List country – it’s your choice and it will be your fault when you infect your hosts or bring another variant back with you. And not only will you get the blame, you may even get an early morning welcome home knock on the door from Home Secretary Priti Patel, rather than a friendly local health worker or mutual aider.
There is an alternative to waiting for the third wave to hit us – and it doesn’t mean staying in lockdown – although it does mean not throwing those masks away and hanging on a bit longer before hitting the beaches and bars.
That alternative is to pursue a comprehensive elimination strategy, based on tried and tested public health principles, rather than this Government’s chaotic policy of “living with the virus”, with its on-off lockdowns, 4.5 million cases of Covid-19, 127,710 needless deaths (as at 22nd May 2021), and untold numbers of people with long-term chronic illnesses.
New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan and countless other countries have pursued this strategy, and it has led to far fewer deaths and much less economic damage. People in these countries are going to cinemas, rock concerts and football matches, enjoying socialising and meeting friends without restrictions.
This is the Zero Covid approach. And it is the surest way to Stop the Third Wave.
We must combine the UK’s mass vaccination programme with
- an effective, local and fully funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support operation run by the NHS and local authorities, providing full financial support and practical assistance to all those required to shield or self-isolate;
- all workplaces, including schools, colleges and public transportation, being made Covid-safe, and certified as safe by trade unions and/or public health authorities; and continued working from home to be encouraged and supported;
- continuing personal protection and mitigation measures such as social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing, and good ventilation;
- effective measures to address international travel – including free testing and quarantine – based on public health requirements, not immigration control;
- Quick action to stamp out any new outbreaks.
The scandal of the ‘NHS’ Test and Trace empitomises this Government’s approach. Having bunged a staggering £37 billion of taxpayers’ money to the private companies running this joke of an organisation – a body that should be in the vanguard of our defences against the spread of the virus – we now learn that just last week it managed to “lose” the details of hundreds of people infected with the B1617.2 variant, thus helping its spread. Yet Serco’s contract to run this dangerous and expensive failure has just been renewed.
A major problem is that the lack of real financial and practical support provided for those who are asked to self-isolate means that Test and Trace is increasingly disregarded, as are the lateral flow tests we are being asked to administer to ourselves. If you can’t afford not to go to work, what’s the point of getting tested?
And when you do get to work, the odds are that your workplace won’t be Covid-safe, especially if there is no trade union to argue for protection, but you daren’t complain because you could be fired and not rehired. There have been 3,872 Covid outbreaks in workplaces and 4,253 outbreaks in education settings, yet not a single employer has been prosecuted for breaching Covid regulations. The lack of enforcement of proper protection for workers by the Health & Safety Executive is just one of the many outrages of the UK’s handling of the pandemic.
George Monbiot has spelt out the tragedy of the Government’s policy towards the UK’s borders: “During the first three months of the pandemic – from 1 January until lockdown on 23 March last year, 18 million people arrived in the UK from abroad. But only 273 of them were obliged to quarantine. By contrast, across the 12 months to March 2020, 23,075 people were thrown into immigration detention centres: prisons for people who have not been convicted of any crime but are suspected of entering – or remaining in – the country without the correct paperwork. Astonishingly and incomprehensibly, on 13 March 2020 the Government dropped any obligation on passengers arriving in this country to self-isolate. As a result, we know that on 31 March 2020, a week into lockdown, there were 895 people in detention and none in official quarantine.
“Only on 8 June was quarantine reintroduced, and even then the system was so leaky and ill-enforced that it might as well not have existed. While other nations imposed strict border measures from the outset, preventing widespread infection, an analysis by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium discovered that, as of 22 May 2020, the virus had been introduced to the UK by travellers on at least 1,300 occasions.”
A year later, things aren’t much better. The stories from returning travellers of the long waits and enforced mingling in the arrival halls of our airports, as well as the recent delay in limiting flights from India, are down to a Home Office and Border Force which would rather persecute and jail refugees and EU citizens than safeguard our collective public health.
Nobody is safe until everybody is safe
A global pandemic must be fought globally. The UK’s hoarding of vaccines is disgraceful, as is its failure to support vaccine patent waivers and to make substantial donations to Covax. Its cuts to overseas aid are already having a harmful impact on the ability of countries in the global south to protect their populations against the pandemic.
Speedy deployment of vaccines internationally without trade or patent restrictions, funded by developed countries and global corporations, is an essential part of a comprehensive worldwide public health strategy to minimise infections and the mutations/variants they enable.
Labour’s leadership needs to move from supporting the Government’s failed, deadly approach to supporting and advocating the only strategy which can Stop the Third Wave – Zero Covid.
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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