This is a slightly edited version of my speech to Socialist Health Association London on 9 March 2021. SHAL agreed to affiliate to Zero Covid.
Zero Covid is an elimination strategy supported by many scientists and medics – but at the end of the day it is primarily a political strategy.
Professor Michael Baker, the New Zealand epidemiologist, puts it best – ‘Reaching zero cases doesn’t depend on a country’s size but on strong leadership’.
And he’s not talking about the kind of strong men leaders in various countries who think covid is a form of man flu.
I don’t need to tell you about the UK’s leadership – callous, corrupt and incompetent, and sickeningly proud of this country’s world beating death rate and failed economy.
One that puts the wealth of the few over and above the health of us all.
Yet again we are witnessing another rush to ‘open up from lockdown’ – a lockdown which, despite being much weaker than last year’s, has undoubtedly had a major effect on pushing down infection rates.
Even so the virus is just as prevalent now as it was in mid-October, just two weeks before the November lockdown – and reopening the schools is predicted to push the R number up by between ten to fifteen percent. And you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that the virulence and transmission speed of the UK variant along with the other variants and mutations we are now experiencing will drive infection rates up at a faster speed than before.
The government’s strategy is clear – to place all its bets on the vaccine – and then to ‘live with the virus’.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a major fan and advocate of vaccination – but on its own it can only be part of the story. Because a global pandemic means the whole world has to be vaccinated – and that is going to take some time – even without the nationalistic vaccine wars and patent protectionism we are witnessing.
They admit themselves that such a strategy is likely to involve a further thirty thousand to eighty thousand deaths – on top of the hundred and thirty thousand we have already suffered. In fact Whitty has said today modelling shows a further thirty thousand deaths as lockdown eases.
Two hundred thousand acceptable deaths. Two hundred thousand preventable deaths.
No death can be acceptable if it is preventable.
If the government was serious about preventing deaths not only would they
- properly fund the NHS and its staff,
- provide the highest quality PPE,
- scrap SERCO’S test and failing-to-trace system,
- provide full financial and practical support to those required to self-isolate, quarantine or shield,
- fund local authorities for the crucial work they are doing,
- ventilate classrooms and workplaces and make whatever structural changes are necessary to enable safe social distancing,
- provide kids with laptops and broadband,
- enforce health and safety laws,
- deal with cramped and overcrowded living conditions which allow the virus to keep spreading amongst our poorest communities
– and that’s just for starters –
then, even without a zero covid strategy, it might be possible to take them seriously [and stop calling them murderers].
You might say that all sounds very expensive, but compared to the billions this government has squandered and handed over to private companies we can’t afford NOT to do it, not if we value human lives before profit.
No country is living with the virus. But a number have pursued a strategy of zero covid and are living with its near elimination.
Of course we can’t totally eradicate Covid – but reducing and aiming to eliminate community transmission is possible – as we can see from New Zealand’s five deaths per one million population, Vietnam’s nought point four per million, compared to the UK ‘s one thousand eight hundred and twenty eight deaths per million, which even beats Brazil and the USA.
[Oh – and by the way, Vietnam’s population is 98 million compared to the UK’s 68 million]
Which brings me back to Michael Baker. What it takes is strong leadership and a determination to protect your citizens, all of them, not just your chums and their bank balances.
Zero Covid does not mean endless lockdowns. The reverse – it means an end to this cycle of half-hearted on-off lockdowns. It is based on the strategy humanity has pursued for centuries across the world when faced with a pandemic. Track, trace and isolate to stop the spread – then vaccinate if you can. Why is that so difficult this time round? Climate change means more, not fewer, pandemics in the future. We need to learn the lessons and get it right next time.
It’s not too late to urge both Labour and the Government to change their strategy from containment, from living with the virus, to suppression and elimination. Both SAGE and Indy SAGE scientists are already talking about a fourth surge in the autumn hitting the young and unvaccinated if we don’t start getting it right.
And it’s never too late to save lives.
There’s much more I could say – and I’ve probably left some really important things out – but I’ll stop there.
I’d like to propose SHAL affiliates to the Zero Covid campaign. We are a grassroots independent campaign involving community, trade union and political activists as well as health workers and scientists. We have model motions for Labour Party and Women’s Conference and will happily supply speakers to constituencies and trade unions. And we are having a day of action this coming Saturday which we hope you will support.