Coronavirus Crisis

Absolute Zero

Amy Smith
Halifax CLP and Labour Assembly Against Austerity volunteer, calls for the adoption of a Zero Covid strategy.

Around 120,000 people have died because of the Conservative Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. It has been nothing short of shambolic. But it has not just been down to incompetence – they have made the political choice to not drive down and eliminate the virus through a rigorous ‘Zero Covid’ approach, instead pursuing short-term decisions, implementing U-turns, and issuing vague guidance.

The Tories’ strategy delivered the hardest Christmas that Britain has faced in a long time. Contrast this with the relatively normal holiday period enjoyed by New Zealanders and Australians, where a Zero Covid policy approach has been followed, and the difference is obvious: the quick implementation of strict and clear restrictions – alongside financial support – saves both lives and livelihoods.

On 6th January 2021 there were 1,041 UK Covid deaths. Richard Burgon MP, a staunch advocate for a Zero Covid strategy, tweeted: “In a single day that’s the number of deaths Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand have had IN TOTAL during this pandemic. Their combined population is over 200m people. They all have a Zero Covid strategy. We urgently need one.”

A Zero Covid strategy comprises policies that aim to eliminate the virus from the country, including:

  • A proper ‘lockdown’, with working from home for everyone except key workers.
  • Nursery, school, and university closures and remote learning, with laptops and access to broadband provided for all.
  • Travel restrictions, and proper testing and quarantine for people arriving into the UK.
  • A return to the 2 metre rule for social distancing.
  • A working Test & Trace system run by the NHS.

Alongside these measures, the Government must protect jobs and livelihoods, providing the financial support necessary for citizens to isolate properly when required and to maintain a decent standard of living. Too many people cannot afford to simply stay at home without financial support. A full financial package must include full pay for furloughed workers, a minimum income guarantee for the self-employed and small businesses, and an increase to statutory sick pay for all, paid from the first day of illness, so that those with the virus can afford to recover safely at home rather than be forced into work. Rent relief and evictions bans must be in place to guarantee that no one is forced out of their homes in the middle of a pandemic.

Not only does this approach save lives, but it is also the right strategy for the economy. Research from McKinsey lays out the argument clearly: the difference between Zero Covid countries and so-called ‘balancing act’ countries like the UK is that the former have been able to restore public confidence and have seen economic activity begin to bounce back. Their research makes a damning prediction: “for every three months’ delay in getting the virus under control across OECD countries, the recovery of GDP to pre-crisis levels could be delayed by as much as six months.”

It is clear that whilst many – rightly – call the Tory Government incompetent, their policy decisions are politically-driven. Our current situation is not the result of ‘Boris doing his best in tough circumstances’, after all we only need to look at the success of leaders like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand to see what real leadership looks like. Rather, we are in this situation because of political choices. Tory politicians have seized the opportunity to further their own interests. They won’t pay for a full financial support package to ensure the safety of the people, but in Spring 2020 the Government gave £1.7bn to private companies for coronavirus services.

In an interview with The Spectator, Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that the Government is not aiming for a Zero Covid Britain and claimed that eradication was “impossible”. This is simply not true, and it is this political motivation that has led to so many UK deaths and economic catastrophe.

People are dying while this Tory government sits on its hands and promises the possibility of inadequate support further down the line. The Labour Assembly Against Austerity’s #WorkersCantWait petition calls for financial measures consistent with a Zero Covid strategy to be put in place urgently.

With job losses set to increase – figures project 2.6 million unemployed by the middle of 2021 – and no clear end to the pandemic in sight, it is vital that comprehensive financial support is put in place now. This must include an increased Statutory Sick Pay from the first day of illness, no cut to Universal Credit, a freeze on evictions for renters and support for those in arrears, and a furlough that pays workers their full wage.

#WorkersCantWait also calls for a national food service. Demand for foodbanks has increased as a result of Tory austerity, from 26,000 people in 2008/09 to 1.9 million users in 2018/19. This situation is getting worse as the pandemic continues and more people find themselves destitute. The Trussell Trust reports that it gave out 1.2 million emergency food parcels between April and September 2020. This is not acceptable, and the government can alleviate this problem by guaranteeing public funds to a national food service. Community groups and local foodbanks are doing fantastic work, but with limited support and resources. No one should go hungry, and the government must take action to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

There are, therefore, not only clear ethical and public health motivations to pursue a Zero Covid strategy but a strong economic case too. The Left and broader labour movement must unite to demand a Zero Covid strategy is implemented alongside real economic support and change – it is the only way to minimise further loss of life and protect people from destitution.

Add your name and read the full demands of the #WorkersCantWait campaign at https://www.change.org/p/rishi-sunak-rishi-sunak-workers-can-t-wait-urgent-support-now &nbsz��\Q

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