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With the Tories’ unprecedented distribution of public money, neoliberalism has been exposed as a lie

COVID-19 is a most disrespectful virus. It pays no attention to wealth, social status or infamy. Become infected you stand a statistically significant chance of becoming very ill and possibly dying.

Like cholera, which similarly was indifferent to the wealth or power of its human host, Coronavirus is compelling vast changes in the way society is organised. Where the ruling-class fear of contagion opened the way to a more rational and scientific focus on public health this virus is compelling a vast revision of commonly accepted political wisdom.

You have to wonder at the ideological flexibility of Conservative politicians. One week we were advised that the optimum conditions for ensuring our collective survival was to expose as much of the population to the virus in order to develop a herd immunity.

As the evidence mounted from Italy where the exponential spread of the infection has traumatised whole cities and regions — and from China where powerful measures to limit the contagion produced a marked decline in the level of new cases and deaths — our government has, at last, begun to take appropriate measures on the scale necessary.

It has taken the best advice of the World Health Organisation, the compelling evidence of our very best epidemiologists and the unremitting pressure of events to move this blinkered government to dump its policy and begin to do what is necessary.

A few short weeks ago the assumption was that the principal aim of government — whether our “domestic” British administration or the entity headquartered in Brussels to which we had subcontracted much of our mortgaged sovereignty — was to contain public spending within prescribed limits and ensure the untrammelled movement of capital, goods, services and labour (save those migrants who our wars and climate change had driven to the limits of our continent and whom we presently bribe Turkey and Libya to keep out.)

Today our government has embarked on an unprecedented distribution of public money and strictly limited the movement of human beings.

The government must ensure that everyone has income security. This is not simply a question of natural justice. It is a vital public health measure. Workers in insecure work or the self-employed cannot be expected to self isolate if they have no guaranteed income.

Over the coming weeks and months we will have plenty of time and very many opportunities to dismember the ideological wreckage of neoliberalism.

For the moment the pressing need is to complete the measures necessary to minimise the transmission of the virus.

It is criminal negligence, the product of years of austerity economics and public expenditure cuts, for the NHS to be run with such limited reserves for emergencies.

The takeover of private health facilities means the rich have no privileged access. This alone should concentrate our minds.

NHS staff are braced for a steep escalation in hospital admissions and intensive care patients. Providing them with the personal protection clothing and equipment they need is not only the very minimum that they should expect from the government, but it is in our collective interest for them to stay on the job rather than succumb to the infection themselves.

All experience suggests that comprehensive testing, particularly of people most exposed to the infection, and their isolation and treatment when infected, is vital.

Front-line health staff and every category of worker carrying out essential work in public utilities, food distribution should be eligible for routine testing and it should be rolled out for the population as a whole as soon as possible.


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