There is no government plan to control Covid
For several weeks, it has been clear that the UK is entering a second wave of Covid-19 infections. Across all relevant measures – estimated and confirmed current infections; hospital admissions; positivity (or ‘percent positive’) rate – it is clear that the virus is once again spreading uncontrollably. The whole of the country, except for Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, now has a higher infection rate than Manchester had when it went into Tier 2-level restrictions several weeks ago. In the most affected regions of England (currently the North East and North West), the situation is as severe as the situation in London at the point in March when the first national lockdown was instigated.
The government’s new three-tier system of restrictions may be simpler to understand in theory than the patchwork of different localised measures that it replaces, but the new system is still unequal to the task of restricting the spread of Covid. So far, the tiered restrictions are being applied with the same haphazardness that characterised previous measures, without consultation or even clear communication with local authorities and public health bodies in the regions most affected, and with a heavy laissez-faire bias overall in favour of allowing businesses and profit-making activities to continue as normal, regardless of the impact on public health and Covid transmission.
Just as troubling is the unsavoury powerplay that the government is now engaging with towards those regions and municipalities which have been instructed to adopt rigorous restrictions. The government’s feud with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is a clear example. Regions and cities cannot be expected to suspend their residents’ lives and livelihoods without adequate economic support to bridge the gap during the suspension. Evidence suggests that Covid cases are increasing rapidly in Greater Manchester – but this is all the more reason why the government must provide sufficient financial assistance to allow the city to combat the virus without inflicting huge economic damage on residents.
Circuit breaker needed now with full economic support
The only response which is now capable of arresting the spread of the virus, and preventing a repetition of the catastrophe of the Spring, is a rigorous national lockdown. Work that cannot be done remotely must cease, and full economic support should be provided directly to those whose livelihoods are affected (rather than the limited and conditional support represented by the current furlough scheme which pays 67% of wages to workers at firms that are instructed to shut). Social venues must close – something not envisaged even under the third and highest tier of the government’s new restrictions system, which suggests that pubs, for example, can stay open if they are operating as restaurants.
A lockdown is not an option which anybody should call for lightly, given the severe potential impacts on the mental and physical health of the population; however, the current speed and extent of the virus’ spread leaves no other option in order to avoid further death and severe long-lasting injury from Covid-19 on a massive scale. Second time around, a more strict curtailing of business activity would allow greater leeway for the limited social activity (such as small, socially distanced outdoor gatherings) which is vital to public wellbeing.
Public health-run ‘find, test, trace, isolate with support’ system
However, the crucial point is that a lockdown is not a permanent fix to Covid. Independent SAGE offers a comprehensive plan and urges the government to adopt it. This must finally include investment in a publicly-run ‘Find, Test, Trace and Isolate with Support’ (FTTIS) strategy run by the NHS, local public health and primary care – to get a grip on the spread of Covid for the first time. The national ‘circuit break’ is a short-term strategy which buys time to allow the implementation of a medium-term strategy. The medium-term strategy is to establish the highly effective testing and contact tracing system needed, capable of distributing tests swiftly to anyone who needs them, and of analysing and communicating the results accurately within 24 hours. Basing this system in the NHS, working with local authorities and their public health teams, will build on their systems, already achieving over 90% success rate, to rapidly identify and intervene around geographical clusters of infections within the general population. The Deloitte-Serco system is currently only reaching around 60% of contacts nationally against a minimum target of 80%.
To successfully contain the virus, these test-and-trace systems must also be coupled with a robust set of economic support mechanisms and comprehensive sick pay provision, so that anyone who may be carrying Covid is able to self-isolate for two weeks without suffering financial hardship, and without being penalised for absence at their workplace. For those who cannot self-isolate at home, including those living in crowded homes; this could involve provision of separate accommodation for those who cannot self-isolate at their normal residence.
Failed privatised test and trace has lost time and over 50,000 lives
The reason we now face a resurgence of Covid is that the government has failed to implement these essential steps in the months since a lockdown was first introduced in late March. Rather than deferring to NHS professionals and experts on disease control, the Prime Minister has attempted to build a test-and-trace apparatus by lavishing vast quantities of public money on private-sector consulting firms with no relevant experience in the fields of work concerned. The resulting system has always underperformed when compared to other testing systems around the world, and the problem has become more and more glaring as the number of infections has risen in recent weeks.
In terms of economic support, as well, the government’s measures have fallen far short of what is required. There is still no guarantee of adequate sick pay to all workers who need to self-isolate; even in NHS hospitals, many cleaners and support staff work under out-sourced contracts which do not give them a realistic chance of being able to stay at home for two weeks after showing potential Covid symptoms. Data suggests that the vast majority of those contacted do not self-isolate when asked to do so by NHS Test-and-Trace, even though most respondents do believe in the importance of doing so; the discrepancy suggests that many people cannot access the support that they need to self-isolate, or are unaware of what support exists. Surveys also show widespread confusion and demoralisation after several months of shaky, fragmented and highly contradictory government messaging: a poll in September found that 56% of people believed the government to be handling the pandemic badly, whereas a few months previously, the government had a wide margin of trust.
We are left in a deeply unsatisfactory position: a specific set of measures are required to allow the containment of Covid-19 and the resumption of any life approaching “normality”, but the government seems incapable of implementing them, in sharp contrast to the governments of many comparable countries around the world. More generally, the government also seems incapable of abandoning its overweening orientation towards maximizing private-sector involvement in healthcare and approaching every public health issue through private-sector patronage. With 53,640 Covid-19 deaths registered upto 9 October since the start of the pandemic according to the Office for National Statistics, and thousands more on the way, the Cabinet must either take the steps required, or step aside for another government which will do so.
Listen to scientists, public health specialists – and trade unions
Campaigners must also continue to exert our own pressure on politicians to ensure that they take the steps required. We must continue to seriously challenge the government’s record, and must also support those taking steps at all levels of society to ensure safety. Trade unions and organised employees have an important role to play in workplaces: for example, it is notable that the National Education Union accurately predicted the dangers of a mass reopening of schools without adequate safety measures in place, and University College Union members have been in the forefront of attempts to avert the unsafe reopening of university campuses. The first lockdown in March was brought in partly in response to mass public pressure, with many people intervening to ensure their workplaces, schools and universities closed. We must be collectively engaged in trying to combat the spread of Covid in our own workplaces and communities – and we also need to demand a government response that turns the public’s many sacrifices into a lasting solution.