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Editorial: Covid is out of control, but ministers still won’t commit to a suppression strategy

MORE than a year after Chinese scientists warned the world of a new and virulent virus that was overloading health systems in Wuhan, the British government has asked people to get negative Covid-19 tests before entering the country from overseas.

As Labour points out, even now there is no testing on arrival while quarantine arrangements for new arrivals are patchy at best.

Though people arriving from overseas are instructed to isolate, there is no cohesive support system to allow them to do so.

The irony is that the government is only taking measures to keep infection out now that other countries have reason to see British visitors as the greater risk. 

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a “major incident” and that the spread of Covid-19 in the capital is “out of control.”

One in 30 Londoners is estimated to have the virus. Eight in 10 positive tests in the area are referred to the even more infectious new variant of Covid-19 that saw borders closed to British travellers over Christmas.

Some will accuse ministers of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The analogy is not quite right, since new variants of the virus are emerging and travel restrictions are essential. 

Yet the findings published in the journal Science showing that coronavirus was introduced to Britain more than 1,000 times during the first wave do illustrate what a different place we could be in had the government acted on advice from the World Health Organisation last winter instead of downplaying the threat and delaying the lockdown. 

(For those still inclined to blame China for the spread of the virus internationally, the same study found the highest number of transmission chains in the first half of 2020 were from Spain — 33 per cent — followed by France at 29 per cent, with China responsible for only 0.4 per cent of introductions).

Some countries have been able to return to normal, allowing ordinary economic and social life to resume, because they acted to suppress the virus from the start. 

Details of the “zero-Covid” strategies employed by countries which have successfully driven the virus down to very low levels such as China, New Zealand and Vietnam differ, but all involved making elimination the goal and using lockdowns to build mass testing systems backed with effective contact-tracing and support for those required to isolate. 

In Britain ministers have never made elimination the goal, pursuing a hotch-potch of half-measures to bring catastrophic infection levels down and then lifting them haphazardly without adequate systems in place to stop a rebound. 

A false choice between saving lives and protecting the economy has been ruinous, seeing Britain combine the highest death toll with the biggest economic contraction in Europe.

We cannot allow the government to hide behind a vaccine roll-out — itself subject to chaotic changes of plan — while it continues to endanger lives by refusing to mobilise all national resources to suppress the virus.

That means not just telling people to work from home if they can, but stopping non-essential work if it cannot be done from home and furloughing such workers on full pay.

It means proper financial support for families whose children must be schooled from home, to stop the scramble for school places by parents who cannot afford to stop working.

It means the urgent delivery of long-promised computer equipment to schools to allow remote learning.

The left should be pressing for further measures, including on heating, water, electricity and broadband bills forced up as people are forced to stay at home.

If such measures run up against our marketised utilities and public services, this can only strengthen the argument for a new normal after the pandemic — one in which democratic power is used to address the inequalities and inefficiencies created by our bargain-basement economy, corporate-captured state and sleaze-ridden political system.

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