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IN THIS country in the last seven days well over a quarter of a million new victims have contracted the virus and well over 7,000 people have died.
Yet this government has made all the wrong choices during the pandemic which has led to one of the worst public-health outcomes in the world, which has further terrible consequences for the economy and society.
This Sunday January 24 we are building the broadest possible coalition to fight for a better policy outcome; to put people’s lives first and to adopt a Zero-Covid policy.
At every stage, unlike this government, we have tried to learn from others and understand how different countries are successfully fighting the virus. These include densely populated countries with larger populations and less well-developed economies than our own who have not recorded these cumulative totals in the whole course of the pandemic.
A wide swathe of the Asian Pacific countries which have successfully combatted the virus include Australia, China, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam. Among many African countries, with some worrying exceptions, their public health outcomes have been much better too than many of the rich Western countries.
This is not because one country is smarter than another. I have never subscribed to the view that one set of people is superior to another. But what billions of people have achieved, either in containing the virus or much better in effectively eliminating it, is learning lessons from previous infectious catastrophes, including SARS, MERS and Ebola. They took decisive action and we should have learnt from them.
It is not too late and an alternative is still possible. There is no more important issue currently facing us. We are calling for the broadest possible coalition of all those who want the government to change course, and to implement a series of measures that will work to suppress the virus.
Our online meeting on Sunday is designed to reflect others’ success and to attempt to reproduce it. The phrase widely used is a “whole of government, whole of society” approach in suppressing the virus. So, we are trying to mobilise forces from across society to address the crisis.
This includes elected politicians, leading trade unionists, activists and campaigners, including many who have already been doing great work in this area. Crucially it will also include leading medical professionals and scientists. We will be “guided by the science.”
The breadth of the coalition is designed to reflect both what is necessary and what is possible in assembling the forces necessary for this fight. And there should be no mistake that this is a big fight.
For a year now this government has operated as if partial and piecemeal measures will be enough. But recent history in this country and internationally has shown that there can be no return to any semblance of safety for the population until the virus is suppressed.
Wherever governments, including this government, have tried to do that without effectively eliminating the virus, there has been a renewed upsurge in cases. “Herd immunity” policies have been a disaster everywhere they have been implemented.
Of course, assembling key forces from across society only means that we can begin the battle to change policy. On the other side, it is already reported that 70 Tory backbenchers will be pressing for an easing of restrictions by mid-February, even though the death toll continues to soar.
Current restrictions are clearly insufficient and far too many non-essential workers are being forced into work. We also know that this Prime Minister always concedes to lobbyists and big business.
Once again, the risk is that public health will take a back seat to spurious claims about “protecting the economy.” Instead the sole way of protecting jobs and living standards is to act decisively to suppress the virus. But the key issue is lack of political will.
Failure to act is preparing to fail. The consequences of not acting to suppress the virus open up a dire prospect. We are effectively in a third version of a lockdown (less stringent than the first) because we are in a third wave of infections and mounting deaths. This country is one of the small but growing band of countries where an entirely new strain of the virus has mutated.
The consequences for the NHS are grave. At the time of writing it is reported that that patients in Poole and Bournemouth hospitals are being transferred to Devon because hospitals have reached capacity.
Patients are being treated in ambulance car parks and even converted double-decker buses. There are record numbers of people on NHS waiting lists and people who need important and even life-saving attention are experiencing delays. The danger is the NHS is being overwhelmed.
In addition, there are now almost 1 million new people unemployed. Lower-paid workers are more likely to be furloughed and more likely to be infected. Black and Asian communities are bearing the brunt of the death toll — and the TUC showed this week they are vastly more likely to have been made unemployed during the pandemic.
But perhaps the biggest scandal of all is that the death toll in the care homes has begun to soar once more. This alone completely belies ministerial assurances that the vaccines have come to the rescue of people who are elderly or vulnerable or disabled.
It really does not have to be this way. As other countries have shown, it is possible to suppress the virus effectively. That is why we are launching the Zero-Covid Coalition this Sunday.
Here, I want to pay tribute to this newspaper and its editor Ben Chacko and other workers on the paper. Many readers will know from their own experience that establishing a new campaign, especially one that contradicts a central plank of government policy, is rarely easy. It takes real collaboration and perseverance. That is what they have unstintingly offered. I hope that is the model for all of us over the next period.
Over time we want to build the strongest possible united force demanding that the government puts public health first and adopts a policy to eliminate the virus. We hope you can all join us.
The first online public meeting of the Zero Covid Coalition will be held on January 24, from 12 noon to 2pm — www.mstar.link/covid.
Diane Abbott is MP Hackney North.
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