At last, Labour has begun to speak out against the Tories on the pandemic, though only to demand free school meals in school holidays and to back the scientists’ idea of a new brief “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
On 21 October the Labour left began, mildly also, to speak out against the leadership on the issue. An appeal coordinated by the big trade union Unite demanded:
• an extension of the job retention scheme with 80% wage support
• action to support incomes
• helping people to self-isolate by increasing the level for statutory sick pay and enabling all to claim it, and
• equipping our public services with the resources they need.
It was signed by a string of MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, almost all the general secretaries of big trade unions except Dave Prentis of Unison, and five Labour mayors of big cities.
The measures proposed, or at least hinted at, are not just about softening the economic impact on the worse-off of the virus and of lockdowns. They are also core public-health measures to reduce the toll. And they are public-health measures which, unlike lockdown, can be continued as long as infection rates demand.
None of the government’s piecemeal measures in England since it started the local semi-lockdown in Leicester (4 July) and the 10pm curfew on pubs (25 September) has been effective. Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland have moved into new general lockdowns.
Ireland’s lockdown starting on 21 October looks like turning the curve there, though it’s really too early to say. Spain’s infection curve levelled with only scrappy restrictions for four weeks up to 18 October, but has now turned up again, prompting new restrictions there. Israel’s new and fairly full lockdown between 18 September and 18 October brought down infection rates sharply.
So the case for a new lockdown in England of some form (mooted by scientists since mid-September) gets stronger, and, if it’s to be done, the sooner the better. It will probably be more than two weeks, and it will not be an answer to the pandemic.
At best it can be a gambit to buy time to establish more sustainable measures. No scientist suggests a full lockdown through to next spring or summer (when, with luck, seasonal factors or a vaccine may give some relief). It would be sure to fray (Buenos Aires has had a continuing lockdown since March, and infections are still rising there). The social and even medical impact, especially on the worst-off, might well come to exceed the impact of the virus (which also hits the worst-off hardest).
Reason and evidence indicate that for sustainable covid-distancing we need social solidarity and social provision, and police measures like lockdown can at best only be ancillary.
If the labour movement steps up to force the government into measures like:
• full isolation pay for all (something more than a minor increase in statutory sick pay, because even doubling SSP of £95.85 a week will still leave many workers unable to self-isolate and still pay their rent and feed their families)
• publicly-provided alternative housing for those quarantining, and for those in overcrowding
• allowing university students to escape from crowded halls of residence which have become prime infection hubs and get rent reimbursed
• bringing elderly care into the public sector, with staff on union-agreed public-sector pay and conditions
• public-health test-and-trace, in place of the Tories’ hugely expensive Serco mess
• increased funding for schools, to allow for improved ventilation and expanded space and staffing
• workers’ control of workplace safety
• expanding the NHS, giving NHS workers the 15% pay rise they demand, taking NHS logistics in-house and requisitioning supply industries and private hospital
- if we do that, then people will be able to see a set of rules which allow us all to protect each other, and are liveable for the worse-off as well as for those in secure jobs who work from big, comfortable, well-equipped homes with good access to gardens and open space.
The government has fouled up test-and-trace, wasted the June-August virus lull with foolish gimmicks like subsidising restaurant meals and back-to-offices drives, paid huge sums to private contractors, and floundered. No wonder many people no longer respect rules which change from week to week. The way out is not for us to turn on each other, one lot blaming the other for putting us at risk, the other blaming the more cautious for trying to impose arbitrary and unliveable rules. It is for us to unite to impose policies towards social solidarity.
One sign of hope is that even in Spain and France Covid-19 death rates are still only about a fifth of what they were in April, and rising much less fast than in March. According to estimates by The Economist, the actual infection rates are much lower than then too, appearing otherwise because of higher testing.
The government is on the back foot. The labour movement has started to stir. Unite and agitate, and we can yet force the government into policies which will save lives and health.