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Editorial: We need a zero-Covid strategy – the government must be made to change course

GRIM news on rising Covid-19 cases and forecasts of a spike in deaths make the case for a different approach more urgent.

Britain needs to shift to a zero-Covid strategy, as the experts of Independent Sage warned months ago and as recommended by the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs — though as yet the Labour Party leadership is not on board.

The second wave is the government’s fault. It did not impose the original lockdown as early as it should have done, waiting until coronavirus was already well established throughout the population, making it far harder to suppress. 

It then relaxed restrictions in line with business priorities without reference to whether the virus was under control.

It has not established a testing regime for those coming into the country, as exists across most of Europe. 

It has handed the development of its test-and-trace system to private companies with no relevant experience and poor records of delivering on previous contracts, and renewed their contracts despite their woeful performance so far. 

Boris Johnson’s shambolic handling of the pandemic is not merely a failure of competence but an indictment of a government whose political priority has not been containing or suppressing Covid-19, but managing public reactions to a “world-beating” death rate, continuing the privatisation and fragmentation of health service delivery across Britain and rewarding its friends financially.

This is a political question.

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty demonstrates as much when he attempts a public health rationale for maintaining business as usual: “If we go too far the other way [in imposing virus control measures] then we can cause damage to the economy which can feed through to unemployment, to poverty, to deprivation — all of which have long-term health effects.”

Indeed they do, but refusing to prevent rising unemployment is a political choice. 

The government could launch a youth guarantee of jobs training or employment, as recommended by the Alliance for Full Employment being championed by former prime minister Gordon Brown and national and regional leaders like Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll. 

It could launch a teacher recruitment drive to facilitate smaller classes at school to enable socially distanced learning, as called for by the National Education Union. It could extend the job retention scheme as many other countries such as France and Germany are doing. It could nationalise stricken industries and protect jobs and skills in them while reshaping them to help meet national goals such as reduced emissions.

As for poverty and deprivation, the government should reverse the huge cuts to local authority budgets imposed over the last decade. It should drop talk of abandoning planned rises to the national minimum wage and introduce a mandatory living wage of £15 an hour as demanded by food workers’ union BFAWU. 

It should immediately raise statutory sick pay so that workers who fear they may be infected are not driven to continue working, putting others at risk, for fear of destitution. It should move from its inept test-and-trace programme to one of find, test, trace, isolate and support, so that those who need to isolate are given the help they need to do so without starving or losing their homes.

All these measures are possible, and can contribute to a national zero-Covid strategy that would see the virus reduced to minimal levels and allow widespread safe lifting of restrictions, as we have seen in countries that successfully adopted such a strategy, including China and New Zealand. 

The government is not going to adopt such measures simply because they work, however. Ministers are happy for Britain to live with Covid-19, unemployment and poverty. Those of us who aren’t must mobilise to force a change of course by exerting pressure at every level of government and on the streets.

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