The UK’s virus infections are now rising faster than France’s and Spain’s, and are at a higher level (relative to population) than Spain’s.
The government’s measures, since infections started rising fast again in early August, have had little effect. The Tories are set to close bars and cafés again, in large areas at least, and maybe soon for a new lockdown similar to spring’s. In Ireland, which has a lower rate of infection increase than the UK, the government’s scientific advisers have already proposed a new general lockdown, not yet implemented.
Lockdowns (with suitable arrangements for furlough, rent holidays, etc.) may be necessary to pause explosive spread. They are clumsy, but the government’s supposedly more refined measures so far have been ineffective. Deaths are sure to rise in the winter (though maybe not to the levels of spring: Spain’s deaths have plateaued in the last three weeks).
A lesson from the fact that infections have spiked again after the spring and summer lockdowns, though, is that lockdowns aren’t an answer. They only buy time for sustainable virus curbs, which are possible (some countries have them, at least reasonably effective) but demand a basis of social measures.
It is the job of the labour movement to win those social measures — to reverse the cuts which the Tories have imposed since 2010, building on what Thatcher did in the 1980s and has never been reversed:
• Full isolation pay for all. Adequate furlough or retraining pay that people are not forced into insecure, unsafe jobs
• Publicly-provided alternative housing for those quarantining, and for those in overcrowding
• Bring elderly care (both in care-homes and domiciliary) into the public sector, with staff on union-agreed public-sector pay and conditions
• Expand the NHS by nationalising and integrating the private hospitals, and giving NHS workers the 15% pay rise they demand
• Public-health test-and-trace, in place of the Tories’ Serco mess
• Increase funding for schools, so they can recruit extra staff, get more space, and fix deficient ventilation, as well as “thinning out” school days by putting students on shorter timetables
• Workers’ control of workplace safety.
There are many factors about the countries which have kept virus levels low, but one is the existence or survival of more social solidarity and social provision.
The Great Barrington Declaration, proposing that lockdowns be replaced by targeted shielding of the vulnerable, has been taken up by right-wingers.
Some of its arguments have weight. Very long lockdowns (say two years, to take a calculation from the Netherlands on the minimum for lockdown-only to “work” there) are unsustainable (even with police states). They pose questions not so much of “lives versus economy” but “life versus life”.
They cannot substitute for social solidarity and social provision. We need sustainable curbs, and we need social policies as their basis.
But the Great Barrington people do not promote social policies. And:
• The unevenness of infection (about 80% of infections from 10% of transmitters) made it look possible that a spread of immunity from previous infection sufficient that chains of transmission become short and die out might come with much less than the 60% or 70% overall infection rate indicated by naive calculations. The fact that the second surge has been strong in the previously highest-infected areas like Madrid tells us: no, not so.
• Hugely to improve protection for elderly people in social care is certainly possible. To lock away the many older or less-healthy people not in care from younger family, friends, workmates, and comrades, and for years, is unworkable and undemocratic.
• A vaccine will not be a magic bullet. It will only be partially effective. There are even good reasons against giving it to young people, for whom the risks of Covid-19 may be smaller than the inevitable marginal risks of a new vaccine. It is possible that none of the 180 or so vaccine projects under way will “work”.
Probably, though, at least one of them will, at least to some extent. Even if most young people will eventually get Covid-19 some time over the coming years, slowing that spread to give time for vaccine development, for even incremental improvements in Covid-19 treatment, and for social improvements to be won and kick in, is good.
It is down to the labour movement to win social provision. We’ve allowed the Tories to waste the July-August virus lull with only ineffectual tokens on issues like isolation pay and test-and-trace organisation.
We need to make up time now. Reverse the cuts!