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Editorial ‘Freedom day’ is a buck-passing sham – how should the left respond?

THE Prime Minister has announced the lifting of legal Covid restrictions while himself self-isolating.

The Chancellor is also isolating. The Health Secretary has coronavirus. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s admission that this is “not a great look” is an understatement.

With more than 50,000 new cases a day and hospital admissions rising, it is clear that the government’s claim it would follow “data not dates” was a lie. Why relax restrictions at such a moment?

For one thing, the government is keen to end advice to work from home to protect the value of city centre assets and raise economic activity. 

Yet in reality only a minority have been able to work remotely during the pandemic, and if the millions who have had to travel into work each day throughout are not spending money on the high street this tells us something about the chronic low pay and long hours endured by the country’s key workers.

If the government hoped to appease a Covid-denying minority, police clashes with anti-lockdown protesters in Parliament Square show it has not succeeded.

The left’s approach to this movement should be robust. It is reactionary and anti-scientific. Though hospitalisations are rising, they remain far lower than before the NHS’s vaccine rollout.

The proportion of people infected with Covid who are hospitalised or die is a fraction of the figure from January. The vaccines are saving lives.

And the anti-lockdown ultras do not speak for public opinion. A majority disapproves of the sudden end to legal restrictions, supporting an extension of the requirement to wear face masks in shops or on public transport and to socially distance in pubs, theatres and sports grounds.

At the same time, the ironic decision to risk arrest protesting against Covid restrictions on the day the government lifts almost all of them indicates a movement motivated more by generalised resentment than the achievement of specific goals. 

Mistrust of the state is not illogical: ministers’ mixed messaging and double standards since Covid struck have further shredded the credibility of a political class which was widely, and correctly, seen as dishonest and dishonourable before the pandemic.

As socialists, we cannot hold that public anger and suspicion of the government is misplaced, but must rather win people to an understanding that it is being misdirected in an anti-social direction rather than channelled into challenging the rigged economic system that plunges people into hardship and insecurity.

The government seeks to pass the buck for rising infections — calling on people to exercise personal responsibility, exposing millions of workers in shops, transport and even factories and offices to the consequences of decisions by customers, passengers and management.

As infections soar, it can then blame the public, as it did at Christmas in response to predictable travel chaos caused by its screeching policy U-turns.

Labour is right to oppose this at Westminster: we do not know enough about the long-term implications of long Covid to drop all restrictions while large numbers have not yet been jabbed.

The government’s obstruction of international efforts to waive vaccine patents and inoculate the world also raises the risk of new variants.

But with the opposition about to focus on another round of internal purges aimed at intimidating its own activists, it will hardly be leading the social and workplace resistance to Tory recklessness.

The vast majority of the public will indeed show personal responsibility and do their best to protect others from the virus. We have seen this over the past 16 months.

But the labour movement must also show collective responsibility to ensure workers are not put at risk while simply doing their jobs. Employers should be left in no doubt that a lax attitude to safety will result in industrial action, and pressure should be brought to bear on local and regional governments to maintain precautions while infection rates are so high.

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