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This latest lockdown should have been the last. It still could be

While the vaccine rollout is welcome, we still need a proper strategy to suppress the virus in order to bring an end the pandemic, says DIANE ABBOTT

BORIS JOHNSON has pledged that this will be the last lockdown. But nothing in his policies justifies that optimism, while it is impossible to call anything he says a pledge.  

This latest lockdown could and should have been the last. They are almost universally hated and have closed businesses and undermined jobs and pay. People desperately miss seeing their loved ones.

Despite this, the British public still clearly and decisively prefers to be locked down than the government’s only alternative, which is another premature relaxation of rules, which risks rising new cases, followed by rising hospitalisations and deaths.  

The latest poll for Politics Home shows 54 per cent of people want to keep most restrictions until most the population has been vaccinated, against 34 per cent. 

This is consistent with the strong majorities in favour of lockdowns throughout the pandemic, and public adherence to the rules.

Despite a media campaign in favour of easing restrictions, the majority of people in this country believe the leaked government plans are premature.  

This is based on bitter experience. The current lockdown is the third in less than a year, and the one which contained the highest death toll as new deaths soared to well over 1,000 a day.

The lobbyists for reopening to “protect business” have been clearly not been vindicated.  

The opposite is the case. We have one of the biggest peacetime economic slumps in hundreds of years. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people claiming unemployment benefits has soared by 1.4 million between March and December last year.

The “trade-off” between public health and public prosperity is a myth. Britain is overwhelmingly a service economy.  

People cannot provide, and many do not want, a wide array of services while a pandemic is raging.  

As a result, we cannot expect an economic recovery until the pandemic is ended.

The role of vaccines

There has been a huge success in the efficient, NHS-led rollout of the vaccination programme.  

It is a hugely impressive performance, by perhaps the most cherished of all British institutions.  

In contrast, it was recently reported that the hugely expensive test and trace system led by Serco has only reduced case numbers by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent.  

As Dr Kit Yates from Independent Sage put it, “that’s a lost of bucks for this bang.”

But the government is fooling the public in suggesting the very welcome and sharp decline in cases and deaths is a result of the vaccination. 

Ministers imply that all the policies previously required are now redundant because of vaccines.  

The BBC reported this week that government’s aim with vaccines is not to suppress the virus but to live with it.

This is completely muddle-headed and potentially disastrous. The rate of fall in cases and deaths almost exactly matches the falls seen after the first lockdown that began in March, it may even be slower because this lockdown is not as strict.

We cannot live with a dangerous virus that is currently mutating in even more deadly directions.  

This is especially true as any vaccine can only ever offer partial protections. 

Scientists are unsure how long the protections last, maybe just five or six months. If so, the vaccination programme will need to start all over again.  

The manufacturers are also pleased that the vaccines can offer two-thirds protection. But this leaves one-third of all those vaccinated unprotected.  

There are no plans, and no licences for any vaccines for under-16s, and even Boris Johnson has previously identified schools as “a vector” for the virus.

Taken together all of these factors mean that a strategy to suppress the virus is still needed. The vaccines can contribute to that. They are not a substitute.

The roadmap out of lockdown

The government could and should make this the last lockdown. But policy would have to change dramatically to achieve that.

First, the lockdown should be extended for as long as necessary. In most countries where they have successfully suppressed the virus, this took eight to 10 weeks.  

But they stopped all genuinely non-essential work, whereas this government turns a blind eye to employers forcing people into work.  

The result is lockdown takes longer to take effect for all of us.

Second, the government should introduce an effective test and trace system.  

The current one is an expensive shambles. Without test and trace, outbreaks cannot be nipped in the bud.  

Government should demand our money back from Serco, and divert it to the NHS and local authorities who are actually trained for these circumstances.

Third, all those isolated, all those on furlough and all “the excluded,” who have no financial support should be placed on full pay up to £25,000.  

The sums involved, compared to hundreds of billions already committed to private firms, are marginal.  

They would have the effect of providing some security for those affected. 

They would also shorten lockdown because people are no longer so desperate they are forced to work while ill or infected.

Unfortunately, this effective and workable route of the pandemic is unlikely to be the government’s roadmap. 

They have built a head of steam around easing, and even though the public is unconvinced, the media editors and Tory backbenchers are once again determined to repeat their failed experiment, hoping for a different outcome.

Yet there are grounds for believing we can win the fight for a zero-Covid policy. 

As polling shows, the majority of the public are on our side. The bulk of the scientists and experts in this area seem determined to oppose a reckless policy.  

And the number of MPs supporting zero-Covid is growing and broadening.

My excellent parliamentary colleague Richard Burgon initiated an early day motion opposing the government and arguing for zero-Covid policies.  

At the time of writing, it has attracted 40 signatures from five different political parties. We can build on this.

Our arguments are starting to be acknowledged in small sections of the mainstream media and an independent panel has advised the Scottish government that it should adopt a zero-Covid strategy.  

We have a long way to go, but we are making progress.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

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