Covid: It’s not over yet – No one is safe until everyone is safe

By Joan Twelves

Labour Conference is the perfect opportunity for the Leadership and Shadow Health Team to put forward a robust alternative to the government’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To date, Labour’s approach has been marked by timidity and mealy-mouthed, piecemeal criticisms. The Tories’ scandalous strategy of ‘living with the virus’ has barely been challenged – and no alternative has been put forward.

If we are to refuse to accept 1,000 deaths a week, over 8,000 hospitalisations, and over 31,000 daily cases as the ‘new normal’, then Labour has an absolute duty to the people of this country to call out the Tories for their deadly, eugenicist policies.

The Tory government has ended shielding, furlough, and business rates’ holidays. It refuses to provide adequate ventilation in schools. It has failed to increase the absolutely miserly levels of statutory sick pay and is cutting universal credit. It cannot bring itself even to mandate masks in crowded places. Johnson, Sunak and Javid are acting as if the pandemic is over.

The idea that that we must learn to live with high levels of Covid-19 has to be challenged. It is unprecedented in the modern era for government policy to allow preventable deaths of its own citizens on a mass scale. We do not live with cholera, we do not live with polio, we do not live with tuberculosis and we do not live with typhoid. Like all of these diseases, Covid-19 can be managed.

Medical science and technology have progressed rapidly in the past decades; the speed at which the Covid-19 vaccines were developed is testament to that. So why on earth should we accepting a strategy which does not just allow, but encourages, people to continue to spread a virulent and deadly disease?

I am a great fan of vaccination – and as socialists we should all be supporting it as a collective good. But we must not forget that 20% of adults have not had even one jab – that is one in five of us, and even more in London. Breakthrough infections occur even after two jabs. Over 100,000 children missed school last week, a figure undoubtedly heightened by the Government’s delay in authorising teenager jabs. And business and industry are facing unpredictable staff shortages as those thousands sick or isolating can’t work.

But vaccination on its own is not enough. It must be backed up by a range of mandatory mitigation measures. They include an effective, local and fully-funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support operation run by the NHS and local authorities; all workplaces, including schools and colleges, being made Covid-safe; and continuing protection and mitigation measures including social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and good ventilation.

When we talk about vaccination we mustn’t just talk about the UK – a global pandemic requires global vaccination.

Many on the left have questioned whether the UK should be giving boosters and teenager jabs when poorer countries are crying out for vaccines. But the ‘beggar my neighbour’ approach of the rich capitalist countries isn’t really a supply issue. It is political.

Countries like the UK are turning their backs on the poorer parts of the world, countries they have not hesitated to plunder and wage war in for centuries. Vaccine apartheid and cuts in overseas aid go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that a government which refuses to ensure British children are safe when they go to school  hoards vaccines and refuses to support patent waivers, profit restrictions, prices at cost, or sharing technology, science and know-how.

No one is safe until everyone is safe.

So rather than engaging in a factional civil war, the Labour leadership should be talking about issues that really affect millions at home and abroad. Conference should be showcasing a different approach to dealing with the pandemic that has dominated all our lives for over 18 months, and that has not gone away – however much we all wish it had.

The Zero Covid campaign is holding an online fringe meeting on Monday lunchtime where we will focus both on safety in our schools and the international struggle to overcome vaccine apartheid and the pandemic. Register at: https://rebrand.ly/zn17lzh

Our speakers are a representative of the NEU; Fatima Hassan – Heath Justice Initiative South Africa; and Nick Dearden – Global Justice Now. Everyone is welcome.

Joan Twelves is a member of the Zero Covid Steering Committee

Image: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/secdef/50744856181/. Author: U.S. Secretary of Defense, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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