Has the government gone down the pub?

The replacement of the philandering Matt Hancock by hard man Sajid Javid has opened the way for eugenics to take over the UK’s pandemic policy.

No longer in the land of on-off delayed lockdowns, faulty PPE, dodgy contracts and helping your chums get rich; we are now on Plague Island where the living-with-the-virus, individualistic tough guys survive and the poor, unfit and weak cower and die.

Society has become increasingly polarised – and much nastier – in the past decade.. For me, the way the assassination of Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist in the run up to the Brexit referendum was quickly swept under the carpet was as much a marker of a societal shift as the referendum itself. Instead of our political classes and media seeing that wholly exceptional event as one over which we needed to pause and reflect, the only changes have been an increase in lies, corruption, undemocratic practices, and the denigration of political opponents.

In the early months of the pandemic, while the government’s ineptitude and failures led to the disaster of care home deaths, lack of PPE, increased inequality, and the world beating mortality records, at least (under pressure from the unions) they provided business grants, furlough pay and support for shielders. Civil society demonstrated an unexpected but most welcome neighbourliness and community spirit. NHS and key workers were valued, young mutual aiders helped with shopping, and most people understood we were ‘all in it together’.

But now, 16 months later, that spirit has dissipated as the government has washed its hands of any responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. It is as though, just as we are all fed up with the pandemic, they’ve got bored of dealing with it and have decided to move on to all the other stuff they want to do like privatise the NHS, attack asylum seekers and migrants, restrict voting rights and the right to protest. If the pandemic can be depicted as a war with the virus, the government has raised the white flag and gone down the pub.

Government messages are powerful. Personal responsibility is now the watchword. The kind of personal responsibility that can lead to an asthmatic self-employed single mum not being entitled to any sick pay or welfare payments when she catches covid; allow mask-less drunks to spit on transport staff; and encourage a speaker at an anti-vaxx rally to compare doctors and nurses with those who were hung after standing trial at Nuremberg.

Javid is such an admirer of the right-wing US philosopher Ayn Rand that he reads her work twice a year. So the man now in charge of the NHS, the lynchpin of our welfare state, is someone who believes that the only proper functions of a government are the police, the army, and the courts.

Which brings me to ‘Freedom Day’. The past week has been full of news about how the Track and Trace system is forcing workers to quarantine. In other words, it’s doing what it is meant to do. With mitigation measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing now our personal responsibility, it is the only defence we have against the virus. Despite all its faults – not least SERCO, Baroness Dido and that £37 billion – a functioning FTTIS system is the essential partner to vaccination.

But the failure of government and the press to explain that the avalanche of pings are a direct and predictable result of letting the virus rip through the community, where the delta variant is particularly hitting the young, means that trust in the system has collapsed – more and more people have switched it off and are not bothering to test themselves or their children. No wonder the official statistics in respect of case numbers are being questioned.

I speak to so many people who are in despair. They don’t know who to believe or what to do for the best. The hope the vaccines offered is being undermined by doubt and confusion. Most vulnerable and disabled people are locking themselves down again. This is not cowering; this is common sense.

Last weekend the London Labour conference overwhelmingly backed the alternative strategy of the Zero Covid campaign; based on public health not free market principles. Mitigation measures need to be reinstated; workplaces made safe; practical and financial support provided for self-isolators, and super-spreader events put on hold for a few weeks. Conference also supported an immediate independent public enquiry and the speedy international deployment of vaccines. Delegates called on the Labour leadership to support this strategy.

Ayn Rand said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” There is no doubt that Javid and Johnson have to be stopped, and that we, the labour movement, have to be the answer.

published on Labour Outlook 28 July 2021

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