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Editorial: Only political and industrial pressure will force the changes we need to beat Covid-19

SATURDAY’S socially distanced demonstrations for an NHS pay rise come as coronavirus infections begin to spike again.

The rise in the R rate — how many people each infected person will go on to infect — above 1 means that the virus is again set to spread exponentially.

The last time the R rate was this high was in March, when the first lockdown was announced.

Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford is right to warn of a “gathering storm.”

This represents a catastrophic failure by the government, which has already so mishandled the pandemic response that Britain has suffered more deaths than any other country in Europe and the biggest economic recession to boot.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s response is one of bluff and bluster, including by seriously irresponsible attempts to shift blame.

As the Independent Sage Group’s Professor Stephen Reichner points out, claiming that people have been taking tests inappropriately will make people more hesitant to get a test if they feel ill — encouraging a “wait and see” attitude that means they are infectious for longer, fewer mild cases will be detected and more people will come into contact with infected people unknowingly and contract the virus.

Prof Reichner’s accusation that No 10 is “more intent on managing blame than managing the pandemic” underlines that Boris Johnson continues to see Covid-19 as primarily a public relations problem. 

This could hardly be clearer than in the latest magic bullet that (like the long-awaited test-and-trace app) isn’t quite ready yet — Operation Moonshot, which allocates an estimated £100 billion to developing mass testing on a scale and at a speed that is not currently possible.

By pulling this rabbit out of his hat Johnson presumably hopes to revive the spirit of national unity of the spring — at least that element of it which saw his government enjoy record-breaking approval ratings.

“Clap for NHS workers” is less likely to make a comeback now they are organising to demand a pay increase that makes up for years of real-terms cuts.

The eye-watering sum involved will be largely funnelled into the pockets of parasitical private providers, leading Independent Sage chair Sir David King to express grave concern at “reliance on private-sector contracts, given their poor performance in the testing and tracing systems so far.”

The group’s report on testing released this week criticised “an illogical focus on numbers tested, inadequate contact tracing and increasing evidence that only a low proportion of those asked to isolate for 14 days are able to do so.”

All point to a government that is busy chasing headlines rather than making any effort to ensure that its test-and-trace system is effective at achieving its purpose — the suppression of Covid-19.

If the Prime Minister cared about preventing a second wave, he would have listened to trade union calls for a rise in statutory sick pay that would allow people to self-isolate without risking being unable to pay the bills.

He would have heeded education unions’ recommendations on smaller class sizes. He would end outsourcing in public services that results in workers on inferior contracts, without job security or proper sick pay, continuing to work when ill. 

He could use the tens of billions he is clearly happy to throw at the private sector to plug chronic staffing shortages in the NHS and offer its workers a proper pay rise.

He will not do any of these things — that is, unless his government is forced to change direction in the face of public pressure.

It has done that several times over the summer, but a new settlement for our public services will require a political and industrial mobilisation on a greater scale than we have so far seen.

Solidarity with the NHS workers rallying again this weekend. They strike a note of militancy that must be taken up by our whole movement. 

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