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The government is to blame for the second wave

The government’s complacency, recklessness and utter incompetence have brewed a perfect storm for the virus, argues ZARAH SULTANA

ON Saturday, 4,422 people tested positive for Covid-19, the highest daily figure since early May.

A further 27 people passed away with the virus, while hospital admissions for Covid-19 are rising across England, in some places by more than 70 per cent.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that the number of people catching the virus has doubled in the last week, with the rate of infection, the R number, now thought to be 1.4. 

This all points to the government once again losing control of the virus and the onset of the dreaded “second wave.”

This wave — and its anticipated severity — was not inevitable, and the government has been quick to pin the blame on others.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock blamed young people for the rise in cases.

He now stresses that a second lockdown can be avoided if everyone follows the rules, laying the ground to blame the public when the inevitable happens.

But the truth is, the blame lies squarely with the government.

Throughout June, on average more than 1,000 people each day tested positive for the virus.

In July, the UK had more Covid-19 deaths than the combined total of France, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Greece and Denmark.

Yet despite this, the government not only pushed ahead with easing lockdown restrictions, but actively incentivised people to socialise.

Evidence already shows a link between the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme and the rise in Covid-19 cases.

At the same time, in deference to the profits of companies like Pret A Manger, the government encouraged workers to return to offices, even where they had been happily working from home. 

During these months, the government should have been putting right the failures of the first wave.

It should have been building a test, track and trace system that could withstand and combat a rise in cases.

Instead, the track and trace app — once promised to be rolled out in mid-May — still hasn’t materialised, while the “world-beating” testing system has gone into meltdown the moment demand increased.

Residents of Coventry have been directed as far afield as Inverness to get a test.

The government should have used this time to address the scandalously low statutory sick pay rate.

At just £95.85 a week, it is not enough to live on, forcing people to choose between health and hardship.

In March at Prime Minister’s Questions I urged Boris Johnson to fix this; six months on, he still hasn’t.

And instead of building up our capacity to eradicate the virus, the government has pressed ahead with reopening schools and universities without providing them with adequate support to make them Covid-secure.

As more than a million students travel around the country to return to university this month, the government hasn’t advised online teaching by default, expecting academics and students to meet in person for seminars.

A decade of underfunding and privatisation already brings the NHS to its knees each winter.

If combined with a hard second wave, the consequences could be catastrophic.

All in all, the government’s complacency, recklessness and utter incompetence have brewed a perfect storm for the virus.

But this isn’t mere incompetence. It’s the product of Conservative ideology that puts profits before people and whose neoliberal agenda has hollowed out the state.

This is perhaps no better seen than in the outsourcing farce of the testing system, where the government’s response to Serco’s manifest failures has been to suggest Amazon steps in to help.

This is why countries like the US, Brazil and other hard-right governments are similarly failing so abysmally, while countries less infected with this ideological disease have fared better.

In New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam, rather than aiming to merely “flatten the curve,” their governments have effectively eliminated the virus from their populations.

While they have had small outbreaks since, their effective track and trace systems have kept these under control.

They have pursued a “zero-Covid” strategy, as recommended here by Independent SAGE.

As we see in the countries that have pursued this approach, this isn’t just the best way to protect public health, it’s a necessary precondition to restarting the economy.

This is the strategy I have called for alongside fellow members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.  

The government must now enact measures to combat the spread of the virus.

That does mean more lockdown restrictions. These are urgently needed — in March, the government ignored warnings from SAGE and delayed lockdown by a week.

Scientists say that meant tens of thousands of extra deaths.

But it also must put in more measures to prevent a deepening social crisis.

Instead of a wholesale ending of the furlough scheme, this should be extended in the industries that still need it.

And instead of ending the evictions ban, it should be extended for at least a year with rent arrears cancelled.

And the only way to rebuild for the future is with a radical Green New Deal, a plan that would create more than a million good new jobs and build a sustainable economy that works for all.

The government will continue to try to deflect blame from its failures.

It may well again scapegoat minorities to distract us, like it did over the summer with their focus on the “migrant crisis.”

But the facts are clear. Its woeful handling of this pandemic has cost us dearly and the working class in particular.

The real crisis we face is Conservative rule. They are to blame for this second wave and for the rigged system that holds us back.

Zarah Sultana is MP for Coventry South.

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