Callousness, incompetence, and cynicism — the British government’s response to the coronavirus has demonstrated all three.
Despite the public outcry against the inhuman “herd immunity” strategy and the resulting changes in government policy, major threats to public health, living standards, and political freedoms remain.
We have a continuing refusal to institute mass testing; an economic package that prioritises profits over workers’ economic security; insane policies that deny proper protection to health workers; and a new law to restrict democratic rights.
All this reveals a government and economic system incapable of defending ordinary people and forever prioritising profit. As well, the Tories are absolutely mendacious in their empty and meaningless promises to “do everything necessary”.
Has ‘herd immunity’ been abandoned?
The Boris Johnson government's initial response to COVID-19 was the now discredited policy of “herd immunity” — the strategy of letting the virus rip through the population, infecting up to 40 million people, most of whom would recover and then supposedly be immune to the virus.
The only problem was that this would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths — a prospect the Tories had to abandon in the face of expert denunciation and widespread public outrage.
Johnson’s change of tack was to move finally towards lockdown, advising against mass gatherings and urging people to avoid clubs, pubs, and restaurants — and most travel — as well as advising older people to self isolate. [On March 23, Johnson announced a lock down and ordered people to stay at home, except to shop for necessities, exercise once per day, for medical needs, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, or for travel to and from work, where work cannot be done from home.]
But this has still left a gaping hole in government virus strategy. First, the World Health Organization (WHO) advice — “test, test, test” — is not being implemented. Health workers who were being organised to take on this role were almost immediately stood down.
Everything is being done in secrecy: there is no openness, no transparency, no grown-up debate, no democratic scrutiny, no public accountability. We can only guess at the reason. Perhaps they realised it was hopeless because they didn’t have the testing kits. Perhaps it dawned on them that mass testing would reveal the vast numbers already infected and thus expose the scale of their negligence.
What is certain is that willful blindness is central to Tory policy. There is virtually no testing anywhere. The WHO policy that you test, you trace, you isolate, you contain is being TOTALLY ignored by the Johnson regime.
The Tories and the health workers
They are not even testing health workers. We have heard a report of a single-parent health worker off sick with a bad cough and breathing difficulties. She has been told she cannot be tested for COVID-19. Nor can she be treated. She is just to stay at home — with her three children. They are not even testing health workers!
If she has the disease, she will almost certainly have been infected at work, where health workers are being told they no longer need to wear full protective gear or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) — just normal scrubs, gloves, and face-masks.
This is putting thousands of health workers at risk, and essentially abandoning hundreds of them to catch the virus, to spread the virus, and in many cases to die.
The experts in a health emergency are, of course, the health workers. But they are silenced by the Tories and the NHS bosses — threatened with dismissal if caught telling the truth to the public they serve — as if we were living in Stalinist China.
Those in power are afraid the crisis will expose the reality of NHS under-resourcing and creeping privatisation. Because of Tory underfunding there are not enough testing kits, not enough protective suits, not enough ventilators, not enough staff, not enough, not enough — even though they have known for a quarter of a century that a major pandemic was a clear and present danger.
Even now, if they chose, a government invoking near-wartime powers could fix these shortages rapidly by requiring companies to shift production to the needs of fighting the virus.
Chen Shen, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, in their review of the Imperial College work on the virus spread, show that door-to-door testing and contact tracing is by far the best way to restrict the virus. They show how China has knocked back the virus to almost zero new infections using this method.
But it involves massive resources, a society-wide strategy to defeat the virus, and that is something the government is not prepared to envisage. The Tories are terrified by any kind of mass mobilisation from below — because it would marginalise elites and empower ordinary people.
Without mass testing, tracing, and isolating, you cannot contain. So everything else — the ban on mass gatherings, the school closures, the lockdown measures — all of it, of course, too late — amount to only half a strategy.
In fact, all the signs are that they haven’t really let go of their callous notion that people with "underlying" health conditions should be treated as expendable. But that is not just a few old people. About 43% of adults are reckoned to have at least one long-term health condition — disproportionately, of course, poorer people.
Mass unemployment and collapsing incomes
The Tories have proposed a huge economic package to help companies, but their support for working people sacked, laid off, or forced to self-isolate is pitiful.
Statutory sick pay (to which one is entitled for up to 28 weeks) is henceforward to be paid from day one rather than day four of an absence, and the Tories have said they will cover the sick-pay costs of small and medium companies with up to 250 employees. But sick pay is set at a miserable £94 per week, whereas the Irish government is paying €203 for six weeks, and the Swedish government is paying 90% of lost wages.
And nothing is being offered to workers who are simply sacked or forced to take unpaid leave. This includes around 5 million “gig economy” workers, many of them subject to phoney “self-employed” scams, many with “zero hours” contracts. And there are firms like delivery company DPD, which is insisting that employees who self-isolate will still have to pay the costs of renting their vans and equipment.
This is the bitter fruit for working people of 40 years of neoliberal attacks on their unions, their employment rights, their terms and conditions of service. The Tories and New Labour have created a casualised, insecure, low-wage economy in which the bosses rule and workers are forced to take what they can get.
Millions will find themselves with no income. When they try to claim benefits, they will find in place a ruthless regime of cuts, sanctions and suicidal despair — another achievement of Tory austerity. The most that Johnson has said about this so far is that claimants will not need to attend job-centre interviews any more.
And what of expenditure? There is vague talk of a “mortgage holiday” and even vaguer talk of renters not being evicted during the crisis. But no talk of all the other payments that should be suspended, including, of course, utilities bills and other fixed household charges.
Meanwhile, the profiteers are marking up the prices on goods in short supply — hand sanitiser, paracetemol, toilet roll, etc — and, needless to say, the Tories have done absolutely nothing to control prices.
In any case, there is no evidence that the Tories have any intention of doing any of the things they say they will do. The “do everything necessary” rhetoric is bullshit. It’s just a mantra to hide the absence of concrete action and any enforcement mechanism.
This can only get much worse, as the entire world economy nosedives, millions more are laid off, and we enter a period of catastrophic social breakdown comparable with the Great Depression.
The Tories know this is coming. They are preparing for it. They know that the central question in any great period of social crisis is, which class pays, theirs or ours, the rich or the working class?
Social crisis and state repression
It was Robert Peston, the ITN journalist who exposed the “herd immunity” scandal, who first reported that the government was preparing an emergency law to give it sweeping new powers, unparalleled in peacetime, to crush dissent. That proposed law has now been published.
The new measures involve a lockdown on borders and wide powers to arrest people in the streets who are deemed a virus threat. It also includes new powers against “terrorism” and “subversion”, giving it the right to detain people without trial for an unlimited period.The government is going to propose that their new law lasts for a two-year period.
The closest parallels are powers in the United States in the post 9/11 Patriot Act and the 1967 Terrorism Act in apartheid South Africa. Section 6 of that Act allowed someone suspected of involvement in “terrorism” — defined as any opposition to the system which might “endanger the maintenance of law and order” — to be detained for a 60-day period (which could be renewed) without trial on the authority of a senior police officer. Since there was no requirement to release information on who was being held, people subject to the act tended to disappear, and of course many of them were tortured and murdered.
Why would they want such a draconian law at this time?
Until now, the government has come under repeated and sustained attack because of its herd immunity strategy, its staggering incompetence and negligence and its kowtowing to big business at the expense of working people and public health.
But things are set to get much worse on several fronts. As the world financial system comes tumbling down and bankruptcies and redundancies begin to sweep the world, we are almost certainly heading for mass unemployment on the scale of the 1930s.
In the immediate period, millions in the hospitality industry, in leisure and tourism, in retail and services, and in aviation are being laid off without pay or fired outright. But the entire edifice of global finance is crumbling and we could easily see a generalised economic collapse across the entire system. Talk of the irrationality of capitalism is being posted everywhere.
Extensive industrial collapse could create millions of unemployed. A banking collapse would impoverish millions more at a stroke. This is what the government’s authoritarian new bill is preparing for — a repetition in Britain and on a global scale of the kind of economic and social collapse that happened in Argentina in 2001–2, when most working-class and middle-class people lost all their savings and millions lost their jobs.
Mass social and political anger could shake the system to its foundations, and those in power are preparing for emergency measures against radical “subversives” — left-wing activists, trade unionists, social activists — liable to lead mass resistance. This, it seems, could take the form of mass detention without trial.
The utterly shambolic response of ruling elites to the coronavirus crisis in both Britain and the US is symptomatic of neoliberalism — of 40 years of profiteering, of grotesque greed, of privatisation of public services, of contempt for ordinary people and their needs.
The Tories, presiding over this travesty, will not only try to ride out the storm; they will seek to use the crisis to strengthen the wealth and power of the very people who are responsible for it.
This is what happened in 2008. It must not happen again.
We need to be absolutely clear. We will not be dictated to by the rich, the Tories, and the police. We will not have our health workers put at risk. We will not have our loved ones killed to protect big business. We will not tolerate their lies, cover-ups and negligence. We will not let them use this crisis to smash democracy so they can continue to siphon wealth to the top.
The time has come to put an end to neoliberalism. This crisis is a radical opportunity. Another system is possible. Another system is a necessity.
[Abridged from Mutiny.]