Still an emergency

Submitted by AWL on 17 June, 2020 - 8:08 Author: Editorial
Firefighters with masks

The “Independent SAGE” group of scientists has dissected the government’s first set of figures from its test-trace operation: 8,117 individuals testing positive, 5,407 of them reached and asked for recent contacts, 26,985 asked to isolate.

The best guess is about 23,000 new symptomatic cases in that time period. Only a quarter of symptomatic cases were picked up. And there are no data on how many of the 26,985 actually have self-isolated.

We now know that in February-March is the government’s test-trace-isolate operation then was swamped. Only about half the people with Covid-19 symptoms self-isolated. Up to 12 March official figures showed fewer than 100 cases identified a day (as against over 1500 a day now), but in fact there were tens of thousands by mid-March.

The virus is almost surely with us for the long term, even if a vaccine is produced quickly. Long-term we have to find ways to live with it and balance risks. In Britain, now, more than that: the pandemic is still an emergency, because infections are still running high. The death rate from Covid-19 has been falling clearly and consistently since mid-April, indicating a decline in infections from early April. Things are not nearly as bad as they were. Yet by death rates and by confirmed new cases per day, Britain is now where Italy, Spain, and France were mid-May. The peak in Britain was a bit later than those countries, and the decline in infection since has been slower.

Solidarity is against rushed lockdown-easing, not all lockdown-easing. We want workers’ control over reopenings, not opposition to all reopenings. The lockdown brings its own toll, social and medical and even in deaths, and worse for the worst-off.

Most of the medical experts, with all their different emphases and slants, look to finding and testing newly-infected people, tracing their contacts, and organising quarantine (isolation) for them, for controlling infection as lockdowns are eased.

There are difficulties with that operation even in the best conditions.

In Britain, we need a public-health test-trace-isolate operation, run by local public-health officials with properly-employed public sector staff — not the current cheapskate operation, contracted out to Serco for the tracing and Deloitte for the testing, and with tracers employed as casual labour for 12-week gigs on little more than minimum wage.

We need guarantees of full isolation pay for everyone who has Covid-19-like symptoms or tests positive, and for everyone asked to self-isolate by contact-tracers. Those guarantees do not yet exist even in care homes, let alone across industry. HC-One is the only big care-home chain to do an isolation-pay deal with a union, and there the isolation pay is for those with a positive test. Not for those who have symptoms but then test negative, and not for contacts who don’t, or don’t yet, have symptoms, but have been asked to self-isolate. The GMB union is pressing on those issues.

We need the option of special temporary accommodation for people required to self-isolate who live in crowded conditions. But from the end of June the government is phasing out even schemes to house the homeless.

We need adequate supplies of PPE everywhere that work restarts, as well as in hospitals and care homes.

So far no lockdown-easing world-wide has reversed a previous downward trend of infections, with the possible exception of Iran’s and maybe Israel’s. Judging by that, the official reopening of shops in England from 15 June, following the gradual reopening of cafés and pubs for takeaway in recent weeks, will probably “work”.

But worldwide the pandemic is still spreading. Worldwide deaths have fallen slowly since mid-April; but that trend may be an illusion produced by a lower rate of identifying deaths as Covid-19 in India, Chile, Brazil, etc. than in the previous epicentres, Europe and the USA.

We don’t know whether Britain now is in a lull before a “second wave”. In any case, now is an opportunity to build a workable pandemic-control system. The Tories are squandering that opportunity.

Make the labour movement indict the Tories now, demand requisitioning of industry for medical supplies, and demand full isolation pay for all!

The slow “return-to-work” which began in mid-April did not really accelerate despite Johnson’s 10 May announcement, not until the 15 June shop reopening.

Many bosses are not keen to restart. They have few orders. They prefer to continue with their workers furloughed, or, increasingly, to start sackings.

At the start of the lockdown, workers in many workplaces used legal rights to refuse unsafe working, and generally won improvements. We expected more such battles after 10 May. We’ve heard of none yet. There may have been some, but surely many fewer than after 23 March.

Partly because of the government’s spectacular floundering, partly because of lockdown-fatigue, covid-distancing has been visibly fading in patches on the streets, in the parks, in the supermarkets (in some, not all, Black Lives Matter protests, too, but those weren’t the first or the main cases).

There is a converse tendency among some workers — some who have secure work-from-home or furlough, and comfortable and well-resourced homes, others too — to step up their anxiety.

Socialists must seek to unite both sections of the working class, with sober and informed discussion about relative risks, around demands for requisitioning, workers’ control, and isolation pay.

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