Matt Hancock says that a Zero Covid strategy is not feasible for the UK. Priti Patel, with the collusion of the mass media, blames the public recalcitrance for the unfolding catastrophe. These are the twin strands of a state narrative that is preparing us for the next wave in its strategy, which will plumb new depths of callousness: fully opening up the economy once the most vulnerable are vaccinated, and allowing the virus to rip unimpeded through the rest of the population.
This strategy is highly dangerous for two reasons: allowing the virus to spread without hindrance increases the risk of further mutations, one of which might well be resistant to the vaccines, and it exposes tens of millions of people to potential long term health risks that are still not fully understood.
Hancock is wrong to dismiss the possibility of eliminating this virus. New Zealand has now lifted all restrictions, having achieved zero transmission. Vietnam, with a population of 90 million, and Taiwan, with a population density higher than that of the UK, have all successfully pursued elimination strategies. If it can be done there, it can be done everywhere.
The Zero Covid strategy is very simple. We need to close all non-essential workplaces until community transmission is close to zero. That will necessitate the state paying workers to stay at home. Can we afford it? Yes. To pay 20 million workers £400 per week for 5 weeks would cost the exchequer £40bn. A lot of money, but a tiny fraction of the £380bn deficit the Johnson government squandered in 2020 (much of it a direct transfer of wealth from the public purse into the pockets of the corporate elite, the directors and shareholders of Serco and other private sector corporations). Independent SAGE estimates that by closing schools and non essential workplaces we can halve community transmission each week.
While we are driving down transmission we need to build the second strand of the Zero Covid strategy: a locally based, public sector system of Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support. That means first and foremost closing down the failed Serco operation and transferring those resources to local health authorities, so they can recruit local contact tracers who know the areas they work in. This is the system that worked so well in Vietnam. The ‘support’ part of the package is in many ways the most important. We found in Liverpool that mass testing is useless if people don’t take the tests. In the most deprived boroughs less than 10% took the tests because they feared a positive result, knowing that they couldn’t afford to self isolate should they receive one. Again, the state must pay people to stay at home if they or their dependants need to self isolate, and there must also be a full package of community social and mental health support available too.
And finally, we need a proper system of public health screening at all ports of entry, with adequate quarantine. Where necessary hotels should be requisitioned. Other countries have been doing this for years, including countries that are a lot poorer than the UK. Our government talks about “controlling our borders”, but they are only concerned about keeping out migrants, while allowing the borders to be completely porous to dangerous microbes. Human migrants aren’t a danger to us – viruses often are.
The pandemic is of course global, and part of our overall strategy for dealing with it must acknowledge that reality. Vaccines must therefore be made freely available at a global scale, with the protection of public health prioritised over the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical corporations.
The Johnson government’s mitigation strategy, of “learning to live with the virus”, has led us directly into the current catastrophe. Opinion poll after opinion poll repeatedly shows that the overwhelming majority of the public support effective action to suppress this virus. What we need to do now is to organise and mobilise that silent majority into a powerful mass movement that can push through the changes we so desperately need. That is the reason we are organising a Zero Covid Conference from 10am to 2.30pm this Saturday.
One of the architects of New Zealand’s elimination strategy will be speaking live, and there will be organising breakouts focused on fighting for Covid safe workplaces and schools, and for organising to drive the Zero Covid message into the heart of our communities. Speakers include Kevin Courtney (Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, MPs Diane Abbot and Richard Burgon, Michael Baker, a professor of public health in New Zealand, Prof Susan Michie (Independent SAGE), Hector Wesley (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts) and Janet Newsham (Hazards campaign).
This article was first published at labouroutlook.org