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Editorial: It is the ‘back to normal’ agenda that drives up Covid cases

MATT HANCOCK’S attempt to blame the public for inadequate access to Covid-19 tests (because too many of us have been getting them) is characteristic.

It follows his macabre “don’t kill your gran” jibe at young people who are accused by government of flouting social distancing guidelines.

Ministers cannot bring themselves to suggest that a rise in cases and deaths could be linked to their own policies.

This is not so much about the lifting of strict lockdown regulations itself. For millions of key workers there was no lockdown — they had to continue to go to work throughout, to keep the lights on, the streets clean, the shops stocked, the goods delivered and the sick alive.

For others, falling through the gaps in the government’s various relief schemes — with claiming even furlough payments entirely dependent on the whim of the employer — lockdown was a period of extreme hardship involving a sudden loss of income. Many will have welcomed the easing of restrictions.

The concerns about the impact of lost schooling on children, especially those from poorer families, are also real, even if ministers who have overseen rising child poverty for years are hypocritical in raising them.

Yet the government is responsible for an increase in Covid-19 cases. It has signally failed to plan for a safe resumption of economic activity.

It has promoted a confusing mixture of restrictions on movement and incentives to spend money — don’t have a family get-together but have 50 per cent off a dinner out.

It ignored recommendations from education unions for safe school reopening, such as requisitioning empty buildings to increase the space available for socially distanced learning, or launching a mass teacher recruitment drive to facilitate smaller class sizes. 

Given figures published last year showed that more than a third of qualified teachers leave the profession within five years, there are huge numbers of trained professionals who could have answered such a call. 

Significantly smaller class sizes would themselves be a real incentive to many ex-teachers to return to the job. If ministers had had to look at the reasons teachers left the profession in the first place and address these — foremost among them the transformation of our schools into exam-factories policed by Ofsted — that would have been no bad thing either.

Ministers instead did nothing for fear that such shifts would become permanent — that having seen the benefits of smaller classes parents and teachers would resist any return to “normal.” 

The same attitude informs the government’s recent attempt to order those workers who can work from home to start commuting to their workplace again: Britain’s fragile, debt-driven economy depends on city centre rents being paid and millions of workers reliant on sandwich and coffee shops at lunchtime. 

So ministers and business tycoons scaremonger about the hit to the economy from home-working and try to guilt-trip workers with threatened job losses.

The same ministers have ignored the crisis on Britain’s high streets for years, claiming there is nothing that can be done about the shift to online shopping — though workers on higher pay, with more leisure time due to shorter hours or shorter commutes, might in fact shop in person more.

The drive to get everything back to “normal” rests on the knowledge that the status quo is too unstable to handle prolonged dips in consumer spending — and a determination not to address the underlying causes of that instability because doing so means fundamental economic change.

As a result, we are herded back to school and work even while cases rise — and ministers try to blame that rise on young people being too sociable.

It won’t wash. There are ways to protect people’s health while allowing them to learn and work. But they require a social system in which private profit does not trump all other considerations.

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