23rd September 2020
Less than a week after local authorities in the North East of England requested local restrictions, which were subsequently approved by the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, the rest of England is now facing similar restrictions in the face of an exponential rise in the COVID-19 virus.
Having spent the summer encouraging everyone to ‘eat out to help out’; go to the pub; go to the beach; return to town centre shopping; get back to work where they can; and take overseas holidays along so called air corridors, the government strategy of prioritising private wealth over public health is once again exposed.
The second wave of COVID-19, which is now officially acknowledged, was predicted by everyone except the government. The exhortation to ‘control the virus’ was always doomed to failure. The virus cannot be controlled. It’s spread can be suppressed, through effective test, trace and isolate or its impact neutralised through the development of an effective vaccine.
While the vaccine option is not yet within reach, more effective test and trace has been demonstrated in various parts of the world, including China, Cuba, Vietnam and New Zealand. It is little surprise that ideological bigotry will prevent the UK government taking any lessons from the first three of those countries but even the example of New Zealand, or for that matter South Korea or Germany, seems to be a step beyond the government’s capability.
As ever, the Johnson government has been too quick to listen to the interests of the breweries and alcohol manufacturers, euphemistically branded as the hospitality sector, rather than those of its own public health professionals. The former saw the summer as an opportunity to cash in on fine weather, the easing of lockdown restrictions and the general desire of many sections of the population to get out of the house.
Public health professionals saw the summer as an opportunity to put in place an effective test and trace system, engage with local environmental health teams to gather intelligence, and prepare for the inevitable rise in COVID-19 cases over the autumn and winter period. Not surprisingly, this did not happen on a wide enough scale.
It is widely held that the test and trace operation headed up by failed mobile phone company Chief Executive, Dido Harding, is a debacle. Stories of people having to drive hundreds of miles for tests, only to find that sites are at capacity, are legion. It is no use Tory millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that people should stop ‘endless carping’ about the failures of the test and trace system. Unlike Rees-Mogg, most of those relying on tests are having to travel for miles, take time off work and then, if they need to isolate, potentially losing income they can ill afford.
There is the rub. Apart from any systemic failures with test and trace there are the personal calculations families are making about whether or not they can afford to isolate. Poverty is lurking and unemployment is just around the corner for many already on the breadline. These are the realities for millions of working class families. They have every right to ‘carp’ at a system which is failing to give them protection and is set to see thousands more die over the winter.
The government has once again implemented a series of measures which are too half hearted to have an impact. Closing pubs and restaurants at 10pm is not enough, unless it is followed up with strict and well resourced enforcement action against businesses which continue to abuse the rules. Failing that, closure altogether. Visiting between households is no longer permitted in Scotland or the North East of England. This needs to be a national position if chains of transmission are to be broken.
All of which needs to be implemented with a properly resourced and managed test and trace operation in place. It is no good Johnson proclaiming that we are a ‘freedom loving people’ therefore it makes it difficult to enforce the rules. That is simply baloney. Keep the rules clear, simple, enforceable and applicable to all, even Prime Ministerial advisers, and they may begin to have an impact.
In the meantime, if the government are calculating that the current situation is to be with us for up to six months, a review of the furlough and other compensation schemes for businesses and individuals is essential. Those hit hardest by the virus are those least likely to have the cushion of savings, multiple income streams or inherited wealth. A further tranche of short term support is vital.
In the longer term it is not just systemic failures of test and trace but those of capitalism which need to be addressed. For most people getting through their day to day lives and trying to keep up with the stream of obfuscation from the government is as much as they can manage. However, people are increasingly seeing the realities of a system in crisis and once again, who is being made to pay. Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk may not like the ‘carping’ but it is only going to get louder and, with the right leadership, more organised.