Earlier this week in parliament, I warned the government that it was sleepwalking into another deadly Covid winter. With more and more medical experts sounding the alarm, the government should finally have woken up. But it’s clear from Sajid Javid’s press conference that they intend to carry on regardless. It is going to be up to our party to pressure the government into urgently implementing a Covid Plan B.
A few basic facts highlight how urgent the situation is. The UK now has the world’s second-highest number of new cases and the world’s second-highest number of hospitalisations. The UK has slipped to around 12th in Europe for vaccination rates, with the government especially slow at vaccinating teenagers.
Most seriously of all, average daily Covid death figures are equivalent to over 40,000 deaths per year. This isn’t normal: the UK has around three times the rate of deaths of France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Yet today Sajid Javid sickeningly labelled the current death rates as “mercifully low”.
Many more will die in the coming weeks unless the government quickly abandons its current approach and changes track. Tragically, it all feels so familiar. Throughout this crisis, many tens of thousands of deaths would have been avoided if the government hadn’t refused to act in line with what scientists were calling for.
Nobody is now suggesting a new lockdown is necessary – in fact the only thing that makes that more likely is the government’s current inaction and its failed attempts to rely solely on the vaccines. What the government must do is urgently introduce the effective public health measures that many other countries are already benefiting from.
Requiring masks on public transport and in shops, improving ventilation in workplaces and working from home where people can, tackling infections in schools, and introducing proper sick pay so workers aren’t forced into work when they are ill can all keep cases much lower.
There is no time to delay. We know that because the government’s own chief scientific adviser previously said: “The lesson is go earlier than you think you want to, go harder than you think you want to, and go a bit broader than you think you want to in terms of applying the restrictions”.
Acting now can reduce huge pressure on our NHS which, months before the normal winter peak, have hospital occupancy rates already far above the recommended safe level. This is now forcing people facing medical emergencies to wait event longer to be seen.
The government appears reluctant to implement these basic steps because it wants to pretend that it can draw a line under Covid. Throughout this crisis, time after time, it has acted too late as a result of putting profits before public health. But Covid can’t be wished away and the government’s actions have ended up damaging both the economy and public health: we have one of the world’s worst responses to Covid and one of the deepest economic downturns of the G7 nations.
With the government once again failing to act in a timely manner, we know which communities will pay the price. Covid has overwhelmingly been a disease of the poor and marginalised. It is low-paid workers on the frontline that have been at the greatest risk of dying in this crisis, with figures suggesting they are three times more likely to lose their lives.
The government’s continued refusal to offer decent sick pay gets to the heart of how these deep inequalities have led to such different experiences of this pandemic. The government needs to address this immediately by bringing in sick pay at real living wage levels, as the TUC has been demanding.
The government’s insistence on handing sections of the Covid response over to the private sector has also been a disaster for the public, though a lucrative opportunity for the friends and backers of senior Tory ministers.
The latest scandal of tens of thousands of people being incorrectly told their Covid test was negative due to errors at a private lab is just the latest in a long line of failures driven by the government’s ideology of ‘private good, public bad’. If the government insists that we “learn to live with the virus”, then surely the least people can expect is that there is a fully functioning publicly-run test and trace system, not one that is being used to line the pockets of Serco shareholders?
Getting cases down also needs a plan to tackle high infection rates in schools, which are driving much of this latest spike in transmission. Last week, over 200,000 pupils were off school due to Covid. Teaching unions and parents are calling for simple measures to keep schools safely open so children can continue to learn. Instead of the government doing its job and providing national guidance on bubbles, quarantining close contacts and face masks, it has been left up to schools and local authorities to decide for themselves. The government needs to stop ignoring these reasonable requests.
For too long, the government has been acting as though the pandemic is over and Covid is no longer a threat. Government ministers have behaved as if vaccines alone are a silver bullet that remove the need for any other public health interventions to get infections under control. The scale of the Covid crisis shows that was never the case.
It is time for the Prime Minister and his government to admit they got it wrong and, much more importantly, to change track and implement the public health measures urgently needed to keep people safe and save thousands of lives.