For weeks now, Solidarity has supported the call by scientists, later taken up by Labour leader Keir Starmer, for a limited new lockdown to slow virus infections. With a “but”. Or rather several “but”s.
The agitation by Nigel Farage and some right-wing Tories against restrictions is really a call to favour the better-off who are, or feel, safe from the virus, at the expense of the worse-off in public-facing jobs and crowded circumstances.
David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been misquoted by right-wingers. But he is right. “We in the WHO do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus... The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted”. Like now.
The lockdown will not “break the circuit” of the virus. It will only delay it. The delay must be used to develop the basis for more sustainable curbs.
“Lockdowns”, Nabarro continued, “have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer”. The labour movement must work to mitigate that consequence, even thoughthe lockdown itself makes that harder: workers are weaker when dispersed at home, and unable to demonstrate, picket, or strike, or swamped by emergency work.
In this lockdown from 5 November to 2 December (probably longer) the labour movement must do all we can find to win the social underpinnings for combating the worse effect on the worse-off of both pandemic and lockdowns.
We have come to this second lockdown, or at least we have come to it now, because of Tories failed to use the summer lull in infections to do what their own scientific report published on 14 July recommended. Instead they babbled about “normality by November” and spent money on virus-promoting schemes like “Eat Out to Help Out”.
The government has also spent huge billions in loans to businesses, much of which will never be paid back, and £12 billion on test-and-trace, much of that going to private profiteers like Serco and Deloitte.
Money should be redirected to the NHS and care homes, which are now certain to face high pressure even if England’s lockdown “works”, in its own terms, as well as Israel’s second lockdown (from 18 September, eased on 1 November) has done, or as Ireland’s (from 19 October) looks like doing.
The NHS is short 100,000 staff. Care homes, more. NHS workers should be paid the 15% pay rise they demand; care homes should be brought into the public sector and their workers put on public-sector wage scales and regular contracts.
Already 282 care homes had “outbreaks” (at least two linked cases) in the week starting 19 October, up from 35 in the week starting 31 August.
The test-trace-isolate has been so badly botched that among those who have tested positive fewer than 20% self-isolate properly (official estimate from 31 August). The percentage must be even lower among contacts of infected people and among people due to self-isolate after travelling from abroad.
Some victories have been won on isolation pay since March. But even now the Safe and Equal campaign has found that in some hospitals, some workers (employed by contractors, or agency staff) are not getting isolation pay, but at best minimal Statutory Sick Pay, £95.85 a week. The latest available figure for care homes shows only 40% with full isolation pay.
Money should be redirected to ensure isolation pay for all and a public-health test-trace-isolate effort, with “backwards” tracing (to identify hubs of transmission) as well as “forward tracing”. In July the official report already recommended that alternative quarantine accommodation be provided for people needing to self-isolate who would otherwise face overcrowding.
NHS logistics should be brought in-house, and industry requisitioned to ensure PPE supplies. University students should be able to escape from their crowded halls of residence, probably now the country’s foremost transmission hubs, and get rent reimbursed.
Unions must fight for workers’ control of workplace safety.
On the basis of such social measures, experts can probably (though surely with errors and corrections along the way) devise virus-curbs sustainable in the long term which will see us through until a vaccine can be developed. And after: no vaccine will be 100% effective, or taken by everyone.
It will be harder than in relatively remote islands like Japan, Taiwan, and New Zealand, but with good quarantining it is possible.
Effective covid-distancing is helped by social solidarity. Social provision, relatively low inequalities: those are the underpinnings of getting successful virus curbs and limiting the hurt from the curbs for the worst-off.
The National Education Union has now called for closure of schools and colleges, though it is proposing no action, not even encouraging its members to use their right to withdraw from unsafe areas under Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Protection Act where necessary.
We are for strong union action to minimise risk, including shutting down some schools or older year groups for some periods.
Our general view is that schools should remain open for as long as workable, for as many students as workable, with strong union controls over workplace conditions (extra space and thinning or rota-ing of timetables to reduce classroom numbers, checking and if necessary reworking of ventilation, extra funding to schools: the teachers’ union UFT in New York City won a 50-item checklist, to be monitored by committees).
School-age, especially primary, students suffer much less severely than old people from the virus, and almost certainly get infected less. The balance of evidence is that they probably transmit less. Countries where schools have been open even in high infection rates show teachers (unlike other public-facing staff) getting infected no more than average workers.
That doesn’t make the risk zero. The risk isn’t zero in other essential services (hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, care homes, food shops, distribution, deliveries...) either. And schools are an essential service. Worse-off students suffer worse from long school closures.
Those arguments rule out keeping schools closed for almost a full year (from March 2020 through to when infection rates drop low again, probably spring 2021). They also mandate making distinctions between primary, secondary, and sixth forms.
With infection sure to rise fast for a couple of weeks yet, there may yet be a case for some limited school closures, especially of sixth forms, as part of the lockdown. They may help “re-set” virus-curbs there and “re-set” all our norms about social mixing and covid-distancing, a necessary step on top of all the formal and legal provisions.
• More: George Davey Smith, professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Bristol University, on “Covid: what do we know?” here.