Adaptation, not just mitigation: Labour’s approach to Covid should now change

Clive Lewis

Throughout this pandemic, I have always attempted to base my approach and how I vote on the best evidence at my disposal, while prioritising the protection of life and wellbeing above the protection of profit. These considerations, along with the now undeniable authoritarianism of this government, led me to vote against the Tories’ Covid passport scheme and forced vaccination of NHS workers this week. Two years into this pandemic, a new and ominous development has made itself known – one I cannot ignore when deciding whether to vote with this Conservative government. 

We now know a lot more about the authoritarian and undemocratic nature of this hard-right government than we did back in 2019. We now know about the hypocrisy and lies when it comes to following their own rules. We know about their disdain for science, robust evidence and experts. We also know they have used this period to erode what little democracy (and trade union rights) we had, by attacking our right to vote, to protest, to citizenship, and just this week our human rights, too, with the announcement of a rolling-back of the Human Rights Act.

We now know that, true to form, the government has not let a good crisis go to waste. Covid has provided cover for their attempt to sell off our intimate health and biometric data. They have taken a leaf from the playbook of their US Republican counterparts to erode data protections and extend surveillance.

This context, along with what the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) called an absence of convincing scientific case”, informed my decision to not support the Tories’ Covid passport scheme. After evaluating the evidence, PACAC concluded that “the committee does not think the government has made a case for any form of domestic Covid-status certification system”.

We must not forget that this was not inevitable, and there were other options to pursue. The government could have stuck to only asking for proof of a negative PCR or LFT. They could have also first tried implementing a package of transmission-reducing policies. At a minimum, this should have included increasing statutory sick pay to the living wage and extending it to all workers, as the TUC has been calling for, so that every worker can afford to take sick leave and isolate if they need to.

Yet this week, the government was given the go-ahead to further expand the uptake of the Covid passport scheme through the NHS app. This digital infrastructure is harvesting our biometric data to the benefit of Tory donors, all for the sake of a Covid passport scheme that the government’s own Covid-19 Taskforce estimated would only reduce community transmissions by just 1-5%.

If the government were serious about the right of people not to be harmed by the unvaccinated, they would drop their pursuit of both mandatory vaccination (of NHS staff) and Covid passports. That’s because the evidence suggests such measures make vaccine hesitancy more likely, as well as undermining civil liberties. Far better to take an approach that prioritises positivity and patience over exclusion and shame. This could include increasing the resourcing of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (formerly Public Health England), which has the expertise for reaching marginalised groups such as drug users and sex workers.

On the decision to legally force NHS workers to get vaccinated, good and robust use of personal protective equipment helps prevent transmission. Clearly, having both vaccinated workers and PPE is preferable, and I strongly advocate that people should take up vaccination when they are offered it. But firing hesitant NHS staff is not the answer. Scapegoating NHS staff is never the answer. The problem is a government that has repeatedly refused to act in a timely manner on the science, and has through its hypocritical actions lost its moral authority to make the tough calls on this pandemic.

But don’t just take my word for it. The British Medical Association (BMA), UNISONThe Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Unite, GMB, The Royal College of Midwifes (RCM), Royal College of GPs – those on the frontline in the fight against this pandemic, of protecting all of us – do not support enforced vaccinations of their members. Maybe we should listen to them, instead of this government?

My decision may have been different if the evidence base existed to show Covid passports work, and if we had a government I could trust, with robust processes for accountability; a government that wasn’t selling off our intimate data to the highest corporate bidders; a government that wasn’t laying the groundwork for an increasingly hostile and authoritarian police state; one that had respect for democracy. But this is not that government, and I will not play fast and loose with the civil liberties of my constituents.

The reality is that Covid is with us for the foreseeable future. Until we get on the front foot, we will forever go around in circles on these issues as new variants emerge. Labour can and should start making the case for adaptation as well as mitigation, such as advocating for everything from new virus-resilient infrastructure through to changing the way we socialise, work and interact.

This would also include, in the immediate present, backing the TRIPS waiver, proposed at the WTO by India and South Africa and supported by over 100 countries. This would see patents and intellectual property rules on Covid vaccines and medical technologies suspended so that vaccine manufacturing can be scaled up. This is crucial if we are to stop more variants from flourishing, and yet it is a measure that the UK government is unconscionably blocking to protect the “incentives” of the pharmaceutical industry. 

Labour must also challenge the Tory narrative that, nearly two years into the pandemic, we are still in an unavoidable emergency. Experts at the Covid-19 Review Observatory at Birmingham Law School have written about how “the urgency that is now claimed and which justifies the emergency introduction of [COVID pass] mandatory use is as much a product of poor legislative planning as it is of the rapidly changing epidemiological situation”.

The creation of a constant state of emergency is providing cover for the passage of poorly scrutinised policies that are not grounded in a strong evidence base, and that are eroding civil liberties. The government could have put in place measures that would have reduced the chance of new variants flourishing, which now threatens to overwhelm a critically understaffed and underfunded NHS. They didn’t – and they must be held to account for this failure.

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