Momentum and the pandemic: left-wing demands or "Strong Leader" talk?

Submitted by martin on 20 July, 2020 - 7:09 Author: Martin Thomas
Barbed wire

Despite the new regime in Momentum, the "pinned tweet" on its its Twitter account is still one from 6 May (under the old regime) which indicated that the answer to the virus is that favourite of demagogues, "strong leadership", and hints strongly (though surely inadvertently) that the "strength" should be exerted primarily against migrants.

It has a video which cross-cuts between floundering statements from Tory ministers - no shortage of those! - with words from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

New Zealand has done well in the pandemic. The virus arrived there six weeks or more later than in Britain (only two cases up to 4 March), and less fast. NZ then copied other countries by closing its borders to non-citizens and requiring citizens to quarantine for 14 days (from 20 March). It had a full-scale lockdown from 26 March to 27 April, followed by a lightened one from 28 April to 13 May.

Those measures, like lockdowns elsewhere, were designed in the first place as emergency action to stop the pandemic swamping the health system. Unlike most lockdowns elsewhere, they worked better than expected, and between 8 and 15 June New Zealand had zero infections. A test-and-trace system which had glitches, but looks to have been better than Britain's contracted-out mess, helped.

Since 15 June infections have risen again, but remain at a low level, 20-odd cases active at any one time. If an effective vaccine becomes available within the next several months, NZ may be able to reopen its borders with no large "second wave".

It compares with Iceland, which also pushed infections near zero, though without a lockdown, and despite a slight increase recently runs at only about 10 active cases. Or Taiwan, which has run at less than 10 active cases since early June, despite the virus arriving there quite early.

The common factor is that New Zealand, Iceland, and Taiwan are island countries which can impose strict closures on their borders. (In Taiwan, a higher level of government surveillance of the population also helps).

Momentum gives us to understand that they yearn for a "Strong Leader" who will do the same for Britain. Primarily, you have to assume, to shut the borders, since Britain has already had a lockdown much longer than New Zealand's. But does Momentum really want that?

New Zealand and Iceland and Taiwan need only control their airports. A "Strong Leader" in Britain would need a whole army of enforcers to patrol the Channel, and would have difficulty even then.

Does Momentum really want zero immigration to Britain for the indefinite future? And people working long-term in Britain, but not citizens, being unable to visit their families outside Britain without losing their jobs?

Does it positively approve of the extra touch which made NZ ban all non-citizen entrants, rather than requiring them to quarantine?

Probably not. But what other conclusion can the video-viewer told that we should have "strong leadership" like NZ draw? And beyond that, there is a lot of demagogy here. Even an island with "Strong Leader" border guards would have difficulty getting NZ's results if the virus got there quicker and faster, as it did to Australia, for example.

Hindsight tells us that the fundamental fact with Britain is that the virus arrived quick and fast and overwhelmed public-health tracking. On 12 March, when the official count was 117 infections per day, Neil Ferguson's estimate by backtracking from later developments is that it was in fact about 30,000. The Tories imposed lockdown when Ferguson and others convinced them that - though lockdown couldn't beat the pandemic: it could only buy time - blunderbuss action was the only short-term way to stop the NHS being swamped.

At least a part of the failure to track can be put down to the weakening and dislocation of the country's public-health structures by Tory cuts and by the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The left campaigned against the Tory cuts and against the Health and Social Care Act, and warned repeatedly that to run the NHS on a just-scraping-by level left it at risk of being overwhelmed by even a worse-then-usual seasonal flu surge.

We were right about that. We didn't have the means ourselves to track the virus better than the public-health authorities in early 2020. Even if you think with hindsight that we should have demanded "Strong Leader" action against migrants and against political demonstrations in February 2020, in fact we did nothing like that. International Women's Day activities on 8 March went ahead, not because the Tories ignored calls from the left to ban them, but because we, the left, promoted them. None of us suggested that the 21 March anti-racism march for which we were preparing should have banners saying "Close the Borders!"

If the left were stronger, and had more public-health expertise in our ranks, we might have done better back then than we did. But would that have meant demanding a ban on migrants and a blanket lockdown? Or quarantines instead? And covid-distancing policies more like Iceland's? We can't "make up" for our lack of expertise by demanding a "Strong Leader" to whip us (or, in the first place, migrants) into line, and shouldn't try to.

One other bit of demagogy in the Momentum video needs nailing.

The very first of its compare-and-contrast clips has not a Tory politician, but Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance. Vallance has recently been criticising the Tories on preparation for a "second wave", but here figures as the non-"Strong-Leader" foil to Jacinda Ardern saying that NZ "never, ever considered herd immunity".

In the contrast between Ardern and Vallance in those first two clips, Vallance is right and Ardern is wrong.

Ardern demagogically and confusingly talks of a "herd immunity strategy" as if that means doing nothing.

In fact, short of a vaccine that gives 100% protection and has 100% coverage (impossible), or a universally-available treatment that makes the virus harmless (unlikely), every policy for the pandemic has to have "herd immunity" as its aim.

"Herd immunity" means that the population as a collective acquires a sort of immunity because enough individuals in the population have individual immunity that infectious people meet very few non-immune people and chains of infection become short and die out.

It is possible to achieve it short-term by distancing measures, so that infectious people meet very few other people at all. Longer-term, it can be achieved by a vaccine.

The calculations are complicated. To give a very rough idea, though: if in normal conditions each person with SARS-Cov-2 will pass it on to an average of 2.5 others while infected, then a 60% effective vaccine with 100% take-up, or a 100% effective vaccine with 60% take-up, or an 78% effective vaccine with 78% take-up, will control the pandemic. Infections won't be zero, but outbreaks will die out.

The more young and healthy people go through infections and acquire some immunity from them, the easier it is for a vaccine to work. If 20% have that acquired immunity, then a 50% effective vaccine will work. If no vaccine can be found at all, then covid-distancing of some sort has to continue until 60% have immunity from prior infection. The more we can limit the proportion of the infected 20% or 60% who are older or frailer and much more at risk, the better.

The problem in Britain was not Vallance explaining those facts, but that the government, when it became clear that the spread in Britain was already enough that no policy would stop the virus infecting a lot of people, failed to take measures which the left did demand to protect the more vulnerable - isolation pay for care workers and others, requisitioning of industry for PPE supplies, and more. The government is still failing on those fronts.

And the problem with Momentum is that its demagogy leads it not even to mention those left-wing demands, or any left-wing demands at all. It has given no support to Safe and Equal or other groups campaigning for the left-wing demands. Instead it wants a "Strong Leader" and ignores the implication in its patter that the chief "strength" should be against migrants.

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