The UK Government has now announced that schools in England will fully reopen on 8th March. That is a reckless and irresponsible decision, and compares unfavourably with the Scottish and Welsh governments who plan to phase the reopening.
We are still seeing over 10 000 new cases every day. Schools are among the main vectors of transmission. They should remain closed until transmission is low enough for a rebuilt, locally based system of find, test, trace, isolate and support to keep transmission moving down towards zero. Not only that, but other Covid-unsafe workplaces should close as well, and should remain closed until they are safe, both for the people who work in them and for the wider community. Independent Sage argues that schools should partially open only when cases are below 100 per 100 000 in every area, and we are still very far from that. They shouldn’t fully reopen until we are below 10 cases per 100 000, at which point a reformed Test and Trace system should be able to cope.
The school reopening is the first part of a ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown. Restrictions will be eased in stages, with a “rule of 6” returning no earlier than 29th March, all retail reopening no earlier than 29th April, a rule of 30 no earlier than 17th May and a removal of all restrictions no earlier than 21st June.
The government will apply 4 tests to determine whether or not it is safe to move on to the next stage of the lockdown. Crucially, the third test is that “infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisation which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.” This clearly implies that infection rates will be allowed to rise as will pressure on the NHS, provided that pressure is not “unsustainable.” Indeed, the government knows full well that R will rise above 1 as a result of its roadmap because it’s own Sage advisers have told them it will. They know that this will inflict Long Covid on many thousands of citizens who have not yet been offered vaccination. And they know there will be tens of thousands of more avoidable deaths. Yet they are pressing ahead regardless. Never has it been clearer that this government is prepared to callously sacrifice its own citizens in the interest of capital accumulation.
The government justifies its approach because of the success of the vaccine rollout (indeed, the first two tests for moving to each next stage of the roadmap refer to the vaccine.) Of course the vaccine is to be welcomed. Its rollout is a huge credit to the NHS, and demonstrates the immense advantage of local public sector delivery over the corporate test and trace that delivered nothing but world beating incompetence last summer. But the technical solution of the vaccine has to be part of a broader social solution to this crisis. The vaccine must form part of an elimination strategy, it cannot replace an elimination strategy. Relying on vaccination alone is exceedingly dangerous. The vaccines currently protect against most strains, but they don’t offer full protection against all the variants, the South African one in particular. Particularly worrying is the new recombinant that emerged earlier this week, a variant that combines the highly transmissible English variant with the antibody-resistant Californian variant. And what about the next variant? Or the one after that? Or the thousandth variant? To allow the virus to circulate freely, as Johnson intends, is to invite further mutations. It is negligent towards not only our own citizens, but the rest of the world as well.
Public opinion is not as gung-ho for reopening schools as Tory MPs would have us believe. A poll in the Independent revealed that 31% do not trust Johson to take us out of lockdown safely, compared to only 24% who do. Only 26% support the reopening of schools on 8th March, while 26% think it should be after Easter and 38% even later.
We in the Zero Covid movement are often caricatured as advocating permanent lockdown. Nothing could be further from the truth. An effective lockdown would be a short lockdown. Then we could all have the social freedoms that have long been enjoyed in New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan and elsewhere. It is the failed containment strategy, and the associated reliance on vaccines as the silver bullet, that has delivered endless and repeated lockdowns and horrific death tolls.
So of course, we know what the government should do about Covid. And we know why it isn’t doing those things. But the key question is … what are we going to do, as ordinary working people? Where is our agency in all this?
The answer to that is absolutely clear. We need to build a mass movement to fight back, in the workplaces and on the streets. The only way we can get the changes we need is to build an unstoppable movement that can force the changes we need.
That’s why Zero Covid, the campaign to beat the pandemic, is calling for action to protest this recklessness. We aim, through such action, to boost the confidence of workers to do what the NEU did in January and say NO to workplaces that are unsafe; unsafe not only for the people who work in them, but also for the wider community.
Our actions always include safe, fully masked, socially distanced and risk assessed outdoor protests. And we also include simultaneous online rallies, so that those at the highest risk of Covid, and particularly disabled people, can take a full and active part while remaining indoors.
Johnson has said that in order to make possible the reopening of schools, other restrictions must remain in place. It is totally unacceptable that those remaining restrictions include a continued ban on political protest. Schools and other indoor workplaces are transmission belts for Covid. Fully masked, socially distanced, risk assessed outdoor protests, most emphatically are not. To continue to ban such protests is a cynical and authoritarian manoeuvre thinly disguised as a public health measure.
Of course the far right anti-lockdown protests were unsafe. But they were not masked nor were they socially distanced, and they were certainly not risk assessed. It would be absolutely right to insist on a requirement for proper risk assessment of responsible protest action, which was the situation we had before January. It would be wholly wrong to impose a blanket ban.
The TUC has found that 20% of workers who could work from home are being forced to go into enclosed workplaces. Not a single employer has been fined for this outrage. Not a single one. Yet ordinary people are being fined day in day out for minor infringements that are far less risky. This is the double standard we face. Capital gets a free ride; ordinary working people pay the price.
We need to robustly challenge and resist this repressive order. We urge Labour MPs to support us in this. If politicians are allowed to assemble in parliament, then ordinary people have an inalienable right to assemble, albeit safely, outdoors. There is a worrying authoritarianism about this government, as shown for example by their description of Extinction Rebellion as ‘extremist’. We must guard our civil rights with care.
The real birthplace of Covid was not the wet market of Wuhan or the bat caves of the hinterland, nor was it a test tube in a Chinese virology lab. Covid was born in the financial centres of London, Amsterdam, New York and Hong Kong. Finance capital’s insatiable drive for infinite accumulation is also driving the ecological degradations that are causing the pandemics: the interminable expansion of fossil fuel production; the continuous expropriation of subsistence farmers in the global South and their displacement by corporate agribusiness and factory farming; the persistent deforestation and commodification of nature. It is the fatal combination of all of these that is exposing us, repeatedly and at a terrifying rate, to so many dangerous new pathogens. Covid isn’t the first pandemic this Century, and it certainly won’t be the last.
We need to connect the dots. It is exactly the same force – finance capital – that is behind the creeping privatisation and underfunding of our health services. And the interests of finance capital ensure that vaccination – a technical solution that can be commodified – is promoted and propagandised as the only way out of this crisis. Furthermore, it is our government’s servility to finance capital that explains its seemingly irrational response to the pandemic. The Johnson government is unwilling to interrupt the circulation of capital even for the few short weeks it would take to drive transmission close to zero. They are happy to rack up the huge state debts that their containment strategy entails because they know (or think) that they can offload those debts onto us through endless austerity.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. We need to steel ourselves for the battles ahead. Help us build the fightback. Join Zero Covid now, via our website zerocovid.uk
Republished from Labour Outlook