When the Prime Minister announces his roadmap on ending lockdown today, he is likely to repeat his desire that this is the last lockdown. We all want that. Lockdowns are a sign of government failure to have the virus under control with all the deadly consequences that follow. Lockdowns are a necessary evil justified only because the alternative is so much worse.
But for this to be the last lockdown, we need more than platitudes from the PM today. We need a plan. He needs to outline how he will get cases low and keep them there. That’s the way to ensure no further lockdowns and a reopening that protects lives.
The stakes could not be higher. The last time the PM ended a lockdown, in December, I voted against and warned it would lead to the virus spiralling out of control. The Tories ignored the evidence and ploughed on. There’s been 60,000 more Covid deaths since then. That’s half of all the deaths during the entire pandemic.
The PM may say that the vaccine is the plan to avoid further lockdowns. But while the vaccine is a key weapon in this battle, it can’t be the only one. It will be many months – perhaps over six months – before all adults are fully vaccinated.
Without a wider strategy alongside the vaccine to drive the virus right down and keep it there, it could again spiral out of control. Millions more could potentially be infected. Alongside huge pressure on the NHS and the dangers of long Covid, that creates the conditions for dangerous virus mutations which could be immune to the current vaccines.
That wider government strategy should be the zero Covid – or maximum suppression – approach successfully employed in New Zealand and many other countries. That’s the best way of breaking the cycle of lockdowns, saving lives and allowing our communities and economy to open up again safely. Ahead of today’s announcement, I have organised a call from 40 MPs from six parties for the Prime Minister to abandon his failed approach and to go for zero Covid.
I first wrote about the Zero Covid plan in LabourList last September. It’s worth highlighting what has happened since then. The UK has had over 78,000 Covid deaths in that time. In contrast, there have been 1,400 deaths across all the countries with a zero Covid plan – Australia, China, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam – despite their total population being 20 times greater.
With the UK having one of the highest death rates in the world and the biggest economic collapse in 300 years, the PM should finally learn from such successful approaches. But if we can’t expect such an arrogant PM to admit his own errors and adopt a zero Covid plan, we can at least expect him to explain how he will open up safely in a way that prevents further lockdowns.
Here are five key questions I believe the Prime Minister needs to answer.
First, how low will virus levels be driven before the Prime Minister opens up fully again? Ministers have used the phrase “data not dates” in recent days. That’s totally correct. That must mean opening up only when it’s safe to do so and in a sustainable way. But what exact data will drive reopening?
We had cases down to one new case per 100,000 people a day in the early summer. We were on track to being able to eliminate Covid, before the government reopened in such a reckless way. I think we should aim for similar low numbers now before any wider reopening. A target of around 1,000 new cases per day is roughly in line with Independent Sage and with what even Jeremy Hunt has called for. At the current rates at which cases are declining, that may require another six weeks or so of lockdown.
Second, what is the Prime Minister going to do to fix test and trace? Once lockdown ends, we need it working properly to prevent community transition. The success of the NHS in delivering the vaccines is in clear contrast to the outsourced test and trace system. The Prime Minister should now bite the bullet and end the role of the failed private contractors and put local public health teams in charge.
But testing isn’t the goal in and of itself. The goal is to get infected people to isolate, and we know many can’t without proper financial support. So the third question for the PM is, what new financial support will there be for people to isolate into the future? The government’s £500 isolation payment is too low and it goes to far too few. That’s why I’ve been working with a group of MPs to demand statutory sick pay at real wage levels. It is time for real action on this.
A fourth related issue is how will the PM ensure that the cases are driven down in the most deprived areas? We can’t base decisions on ending the lockdown on some national average that ignores high infection rates in poor urban areas. A recent classified government report shows deprivation, poor housing and work conditions led to high coronavirus rates. The government is aware of it, so what is it going to do about it? For example, the TUC says millions of workers are having to go into work who could be working from home. The government should act on this to protect workers and keep the R rate low.
Fifth and finally, what is the PM’s plan for the safe opening of schools and to avoid repeating past errors? School reopening will affect ten million students and staff. Last month, the PM called schools “vectors of transmission”. So what’s been done since then to address this? How much community space and extra staff have been hired to reduce class sizes? What has been done to prepare for a rota system? A safe phased reopening is clearly a better approach than all pupils returning on March 8th.
It’s simply not good enough for the Prime Minister to cross his fingers and hope everything turns out well this time. The end of the third lockdown shouldn’t be the start of a fourth. We finally need a plan. One that gets cases down and keeps them there. Nothing else will be acceptable.