In Britain as in other countries in Europe, detected SARS-Cov-2 infections have been rising slowly since early July, and now faster since points in August.
In France, the rise has been much faster. In Spain, it has already fed into a rise in Covid-19 deaths, though so far only to a rate about 5% of the April peak.
From mid-April through to early July, infection levels fell fairly steadily across Europe. The fall was not reversed, halted, or even visibly slowed by limited lockdown-easing measures across those months, notably the reopening of schools in many countries.
The obvious explanation for the new rise in July and August, after schools shut for summer, is the reopening of pubs, bars, cafés, and tourist activities.
A further rise looks likely in the coming weeks, as more holidayers return home and as millions of students move across countries to set up new and often crowded “households” in halls of residence and to visit new pubs (even if they won’t be able to join the in-person classes they moved for).
Then a further rise when colder weather starts, in October-November, and people spend more time indoors. Yet another in November-December, when the flu season starts; tracking SARS-Cov-2 becomes harder amidst an inevitable rise in not-very-different-looking flu infections; and hospitals would become overstretched on regular seasonal patterns even without the new virus. The Tories’ “rule of six” is unlikely to help much. It may even be counterproductive by turning people to blame each other as over-fussy or as reckless. We need measures which rebuild social solidarity and social provision.
In Israel, which on most scientific estimates ended its early-2020 lockdown too early, in May, and has seen infections rising again since early June, the government has now decreed a new full lockdown for three weeks from 18 September.
Nowhere else, as far as we know, are scientists proposing full general lockdowns, as distinct from local restrictions, better tracking-and-testing, etc. To think that full general lockdowns are the only answer would in fact be to distract attention from the underpinning social issues. And those social issues, untackled, will take their toll again after any new full general lockdown, whether three weeks or three months.
Social issues make a difference. In Germany, cases have risen again since mid-July, but only slowly, and death rates in proportion to cases have always been lower than elsewhere, although Germany has and almost-always has had looser “lockdown” measures than Britain.
In Japan, which has never had a general lockdown, cases increased in June and July, but have decreased again since early August. A decrease in death rates has followed the new decrease in cases.
The new surge of the virus is not an unavoidable fate sweeping the world. In fact worldwide cases have plateaued since late July, and worldwide deaths have decreased a bit since then.
The UK now has the highest rate of testing in ratio to population of any large country in the world. But, as the Independent SAGE scientists say: “The ‘NHS T[est-and] T[race]’ system is flawed, with an illogical focus on numbers tested, inadequate contact tracing, and increasing evidence that only a low proportion of those asked to isolate for 14 days are able to do so”. We need a socially different testing system.
The labour movement should not be intimidated by the “rule of six” into retreating to “stay-at-home” mode. We need the unions and Labour to mobilise to indict the Tories and demand:
• Isolation pay, and alternative accommodation for people in crowded housing who need to self-isolate
• A public-health, publicly-accountable strategy, not the current mess of Serco and similar profiteering in test-and-trace, not the webs of private-profit contractors, sub-contractors, and sub-sub-contractors in NHS supplies and logistics
• Take over the private hospitals and integrate them into the NHS
• Take social care into public ownership, and staff it on regular public-sector pay and conditions
• Workers’ control over safety at work, and over all back-to-the-office plans
• Extension of furlough payments, and rent holidays, to prepare for closing areas like pubs, cafés, and inessential travel if indicated.