The rollbacks so far

Submitted by martin on 10 May, 2020 - 9:56 Author: Martin Thomas
The youngest school children are returning in Queensland, Australia

Above: the youngest school children are returning in Queensland, Australia

A provisional “lockdown rollback” checklist compiled by researchers at Oxford University puts the UK fourth from bottom among all the world’s countries for readiness to roll back lockdown measures.

The detail of the list is unreliable, but daily deaths have gone down less than in other European countries which are “rolling back”. Daily new confirmed cases aren’t really going down.

Supplies of PPE are still inadequate in the NHS and care homes, let alone in other places. Isolation pay rights are patchy. Tracking-and-tracing plans are vague. Few workplace-reopening plans have been checked by unions.

All that is good reason for delay, for example of school reopening until September, and new stress on our demands for requisitioning for PPE supplies and for isolation pay for all.

But the lockdowns have been at best only a way to buy time. They don’t cure anyone. They have social and health costs. Those costs weigh heaviest on the worse-off. The inescapable facts are that there are no proper scientific studies (vs more or less informed guesses) of what “works” or doesn’t to slow infection, and that for many years to come (even with a vaccine, which won’t be 100%) we will be balancing unknown risks.

Good news: pretty much all the variety of partial lockdown-rollbacks have “worked” so far. Emphasis: so far. We still don’t know if trends will turn worse after a few weeks, or whether big second and third “waves” will come. Britain being late gives us a chance to learn by observing experience.

China has been rolling back since 11 March; the Czech Republic since 7 April; Austria, South Korea, and others since mid April. Almost all European countries have started rollbacks now. There have been “blips”. The state-by-state rollbacks in the USA look risky. The detail varies widely from country to country. Very few countries have solid tracking-and-tracing operations (not Germany, for example). But generally, and so far, trends of declining infections and deaths have continued after the rollbacks.

In France, the main teachers’ union organisation, the FSU, supports advice from government’s own scientific advisory committee to remit school reopening to September rather the government’s schedule of 11 May. It highlights the difficulties of combining distance-teaching with in-school teaching.

The FSU and other union organisations (CGT, Solidaires) have also launched a petition about “the day after”: It calls for requisitioning of industry for medical supplies, a ban on dividend and bonus payouts, taxing the rich, and expansion of public services.

Some countries have started reopening with shops, others with schools. Often parents are told not to enter the schools because of infection risk to school workers. There’s usually increased cleaning and handwashing, plus social distancing for school workers; in China and Taiwan, daily temperature-testing.

China and Germany have put exam work for older students first; Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the youngest primary students first. Sweden has cancelled exams while keeping schools open throughout.

Western Australia and South Australia called all year levels back to school from 29 April, and about 70% are back. In Queensland, schools were closed on 30 March after the teachers’ union threatened an (illegal) strike; they reopen on 11 May with the youngest (kindie-prep-1) and oldest students. New South Wales is bringing back all year levels, but one day a week each. Victoria has set no date.

The New South Wales Teachers’ Federation is agitating for a reopening more like Queensland’s. The unions have won on issues like guarantees for supply and contract teachers.

The Australian public health authorities set no rules for social distancing for students. (That’s based on the balance of evidence that children rarely suffer severely from the virus, and seem to be much less infectious to others, plus the view that it won’t work anyway).

In Israel, the big issue for the teachers’ union is provision for medically high-risk teachers. Danish schools are working on two-metre social-distancing for students; China, on one-metre. The Netherlands has plastic shields round students’ desks, but the desks themselves not separated. Norway says primary students must play in groups no bigger than five.

Generally new rules for increased cleaning and PPE and social distancing for workers have been won or granted in public transport.

Beyond that it varies. In Paris, the métro is due to start running 75% of services from 11 May, with (it plans) 15% of usual passenger numbers. All passengers must wear a mask (the unions are demanding they be distributed free) and travelling at rush hour will be illegal without a letter from your employer.

In China, the Wuhan metro has reopened with elaborate provision to limit passenger numbers. The Shanghai metro is busy. The Seoul metro, in South Korea, the Hong Kong MTR, and the Berlin U-Bahn, have remained fairly busy throughout, though less crowded than usual.

Britain has been almost the only country in the world not to have something like 14 days’ quarantine for all entrants. (Quarantine, rather than testing entrants, because the tests will not detect infections from the last few days, e.g. from the journey).

We call for quarantine accommodation for those who need it, and warn against further restriction (e.g. restricting entry to returning citizens only, as in Australia and New Zealand) or attempts to build further migration barriers from the emergency measures.

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