Beware a Covid Coalition

Britain’s ‘4 week national lockdown’ will not halt the rate at which Tory pandemic planning falls apart. Privately, there are calls for a ‘Grand Coalition’, a Government of National Unity to save the country. For Labour (and Britain) it would be the Kiss of the Spider Woman; something to be avoided as much as Covid itself.

Boris Johnson only reaches out to others in search of scapegoats. As northern Mayors and council leaders discovered, Johnson doesn’t do partnerships. He does diktats wrapped in devolved duties with inadequate budgets. As his plans disintegrate, Johnson frantically looks round for others to pass the blame to. He isn’t the first such Tory Leader, and won’t be the last. But Labour should have none of it.

The roots of Britain’s pandemic omni-shambles are to be found in 3 elements; Johnson’s disastrous approach to test and trace, his undermining of public health institutions and Tory obsessions with privatisation.

Test, trace and trust

Start with test and trace. From the outset, it should have been ‘test, trace and isolate’. Everything hinges on keeping the ‘R’ rate below 1. Do this and the pandemic is in retreat. Fail and the crisis spirals out of control. But to keep ‘R’ below 1 you have to have accurate (granular) data about where (and how) infections are spreading. Without it, all the limits on hotels, pub opening times, family movements, shop closures and whole area lockdowns end up chasing water into sand. And without adequate wage guarantees, such lockdowns create a toxic brew of poverty and pandemic that becomes unmanageable.

Contrast Britain’s muddle with approaches elsewhere. In France, people are only being allowed to leave home for essential work or medical reasons. Germany has gone into a 4 week national lockdown after recording 14,964 infections and 42 deaths in 24 hours. On the same day the UK reported 24,701 new cases and 310 deaths; six times the death rate and six times the confusion.

In China, coastal city of Qingdao discovered 12 new cases of Covid-19, then tested its entire population (9 million people) over the 5 days that followed. This is what real ‘track, trace and isolate’ looks like.

In a two pronged strategy – nationally defined and funded, locally controlled and delivered – Qingdao prioritised identifying and isolating the problem rather than shutting down its entire economy. Thousands of health workers were deployed – in small, area-based, testing centres – to identify and contain the outbreak.

Every country with effective Covid containment records offers a combination of rapid identification and targeted isolation. The most successful ones run largely within the public domain; working hand in glove with (and through) local public health structures.

Britain has done the opposite. NHS laboratories and monitoring systems were overlooked in favour of private contractors (often with zero ‘delivery’ expertise). Local health authorities receive limited data from central government, and even more limited funding. To date, public health authorities have had £300m for Covid monitoring, while £12 billion has been thrown to private contractors (in contracts never subject to competitive tendering). Johnson’s obsession with private contracts (be it for medical kit or monitoring) does not come within the same galaxy as the best international approaches to containing Covid.

Ending in tiers

The government’s 3-Tier fairy cake is more a statement of confusion than an answer to the pandemic. It is riddled with contradictions and loopholes. No wonder Mayors and Council Leaders are up in arms.

In his evidence to the parliamentary Committee, professor John Edmunds (an expert on infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) bluntly told MPs –

“Let’s say Tier 3 works and keeps the reproduction number at about 1 – and I don’t think anybody really thinks it’s going to reduce it to less than one – that means that in Liverpool and Manchester and the North West, we’ll keep the incidence at this high level; which is putting hospitals under strain. Any area in a lower tier will see its epidemic keep growing until it has to be brought into Tier 3.”

So, Tier 3 delivers a steady state of crisis (and economic meltdown). Anything less results in an accelerating pandemic. Say goodbye to Christmas, folks. This is not a strategy. It’s a suicide note. What we need is not a government of National Unity but a serious Plan B

Labour needs to form a Grand Coalition of its own; involving Mayors, Council Leaders, the devolved Assemblies and (yes) the Scottish Parliament.

The challenge is to identify what such a Coalition should (and should not) embrace.

Siren calls and Swedish models

In the face of Johnson’s hectoring meanders it is understandable that arguments favouring a laissez-faire, ‘herd immunity’ approach have resurfaced. This is the so called ‘Swedish model’; the idea of protecting the most vulnerable, allowing the pandemic to rip and letting the survivors pick up the pieces. This isn’t a strategy, just a real life version of Game of Thrones.

For the record, the Swedish government has repeatedly said it is not pursuing herd immunity. But free-market zealots don’t care. They disregard critical differences in culture, scale and politics between our two countries. Sweden’s entire population (10.3 million) is less than that of Greater London. It is a physically dispersed country where safe separation distances are the normal way of life. Half of Sweden’s entire population is made up of single person households.

Claims about ‘keeping the economy going’ are also distorted. Images of people merrily drinking and socialising in Stockholm mask the fact that this is where the disproportionate number of Sweden’s Covid cases (and deaths) occur. Only by adding in all of Sweden’s remote areas do you get a picture of (relatively) greater Covid success than in the UK (58 deaths per 100,000 as against 65). Neither of us offer the most successful international examples.

There are, though, some things Britain might reflect on. The Swedish constitution prevents the government from overruling its independent public service agencies. Responsibility for pandemic planning rests with clinicians in their Public Health Institute. This doesn’t render Parliament powerless, but requires government to act within a framework set by the Institute. Boris would go ballistic.

‘Normal’ economics?

From early March, the Swedish government followed plans that closed secondary schools and universities, restricted access to nursing homes, limited public gatherings to a maximum of 50, and specified safe separation distances. Sweden’s main cinema chain closed in mid-March and has not re-opened. Their ski operators followed in April. Their hospitality sector has seen a 1,400% increase in businesses going into administration. This is a long way from normal economics. It just doesn’t get mentioned.

What also gets overlooked is Sweden’s solid basis of trust between government and people; something almost irretrievably broken in Britain.

Swedish people have consistently voted for high progressive taxation, funding an inclusive safety net of public services that everyone can rely on. So when governments ‘advise’ a course of action, community compliance comes with the certainty that no one will fall through the net. It is a factor that Northern Mayors in Britain are screaming (forlornly) for the Johnson government to replicate.

Public trust in British politics will take a long time to repair. To do so, radically devolved powers will have to go hand in hand with competent and coherent national governance. This must be the cornerstone of any alternative Covid-coalition Labour sets out to build.

Such a coalition would insist on sacking Dominic Cummings and the cohort of libertarian fundamentalists surrounding him. Britain might then pinch Sweden’s approach to handing pandemic planning over the public health institutions who advise at a national level. Data must then be shared fully with local public health infrastructures. This is where detailed intervention planning works.

National government must set the targets, define (and deliver) devolved powers, and finance safety net guarantees that the poor can’t fall through. Even with the more generous 11th hour concessions thrown in by the Chancellor, local authorities know that increasing poverty is the biggest threat to public compliance. The poor, who can’t pay their bills or feed their kids, will not stay at home to die quietly. The ‘free school meals’ debacle shows just how far Tory MPs – who show no signs of deferring their own pay increases – fail to grasp what poverty really means to those at the margins of survival.

The federal and the local

Boris’ 4 week national ‘circuit break’ still fails to recognise that localities must become centre stage in the delivery of ‘test, trace and isolate’ programmes. Greater Manchester legitimately insists that wider travel to work patterns make a Manchester-only approach nonsensical. Until it too has more granular data to work with, Wales is entitled to set a broader countrywide containment plan. Boundaries will end up being judged by whether they help bring the ‘R’ rate below 1 or not.

What makes a mockery of Johnson’s policies is not the boundaries but the contradictions. Try explaining to people in Liverpool (or Manchester) why they can’t drive outside the city-region but could fly wherever they wanted from the local airport. This isn’t strategy, it’s policy on the hoof … and everyone knows it.

Treating the public like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party will not end the pandemic. Brutal as it may seem, the 4 week ‘circuit break’ could cost Britain less than a moveable feast of on-going confusion; especially if it embraced the (so far) taboo area of a complete freeze on rent payments. Small businesses forlornly point out that the rentier owners of capital assets have insisted on full rent payments throughout the pandemic. Workers may or may not have jobs when all this ends, but the owners of capital will still have capital assets. Rents should be the first thing frozen in any shut-down; only re-instated in the phased re-openings as areas get (and keep) their ‘R’ rate below 1.

Ending the pandemic, however, isn’t the Tory game. They are using the crisis to strip public ownership and democratic accountability from the landscape of British politics. Poverty, pollution and planetary breakdown are all cascading into the same pot.

The bigger crisis facing Britain is one of democracy, environmental stability, public accountability, ownership and leadership. There is less than a decade in which to make these centre stage of a radically different politics.

The sooner Labour grasps this, the better.

Alan Simpson


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