“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview
by Ian Sinclair
20 January 2021
On 13 January official figures showed a record daily 1,564 new covid fatalities in the UK, shamefully taking the total number of deaths from covid in the country to over 100,000.
In response to this ongoing government-made national catastrophe, the Zero Covid campaign was established in October 2020, supported by trade unions, academics and health experts.
Ian Sinclair asked Roy Wilkes from the campaign to explain what ‘Zero Covid’ actually means, whether other nations have had success following this strategy and what concerned citizens can do to support the campaign.
Ian Sinclair: What, exactly, does ‘Zero Covid’ mean? The total suppression of the virus?
Roy Wilkes: Zero Covid is an aspiration, based on the premise that there is no acceptable level of transmission. There are two alternatives to a Zero Covid strategy: herd immunity, and containment. Several governments flirted with the herd immunity strategy – allowing the virus to circulate unhindered, while supposedly protecting the most clinically vulnerable as far as possible – in the early stages of the pandemic; but they soon realised that the resultant mass death tolls would be politically untenable. So they moved on to a containment strategy, of allowing the virus to circulate until health services were at risk of being overwhelmed, and then taking partial suppression measures until transmission (and hospitalisation) rates are reduced.
The containment strategy is motivated by a desire to maintain normal economic for as long as possible. But even on its own terms it has failed miserably. At £380bn, the UK has suffered an 80% higher state deficit than the G7 average. We have also experienced a 90% greater decline in economic output, and a 60% higher death toll.
The repeated cycle of on-off lockdowns has damaged both lives and livelihoods. The death tolls (and long term health damage) have been considerably worse in deprived communities, among disabled people and among black and ethnic minority people. It is those same communities who have been most impoverished by the government’s handling of Covid. Those who live in the leafy suburbs on the other hand, can more easily avoid the risks of contagion. Billionaires have seen their wealth rise at an astonishing rate, stock markets have boomed, and the corporate privatisation vultures like Serco have gorged profusely on the state coffers.
The alternative to this is an elimination strategy, a Zero Covid strategy. Some experts have argued that total elimination is now impossible, that the virus is endemic. That may or may not be the case. However, by pursuing the aspiration of Zero Covid we will put ourselves in the strongest position to successfully contain small outbreaks as and when they occur. We will also give the vaccines a much better chance of working effectively.
Pandemics are becoming more frequent, almost certainly as a result of ecological degradation. There will be further pandemics, and the next one might be considerably more dangerous than Covid. Pursuing a Zero Covid strategy will help us to build the infrastructure and the expertise that we will need to deal with those future pandemics as and when they arise.
IS: What policies does the Zero Covid campaign believe the UK government should be implementing to achieve Zero Covid?
RW: The Zero Covid strategy is very simple. We need to close all non-essential workplaces until community transmission is close to zero. That will necessitate the state paying workers to stay at home. Can we afford it? Yes. To pay 20 million workers £400 per week for five weeks would cost the exchequer £40bn. A lot of money, but a tiny fraction of the £380bn deficit the Johnson government squandered in 2020. Independent Sage estimates that by closing schools and non-essential workplaces we can halve community transmission each week.
While we are driving down transmission we need to build the second strand of the Zero Covid strategy: a locally based, public sector system of Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support. That means first and foremost closing down the failed Serco operation and transferring those resources to local health authorities, so they can recruit local contact tracers who know the areas they work in. The ‘support’ part of the package is in many ways the most important. We found in Liverpool that mass testing is useless if people don’t take the tests; and in the most deprived boroughs less than 10% took the tests because they feared a positive result, knowing that they couldn’t afford to self isolate should they receive one. Again, the state must pay people to stay at home if they or their dependents need to self isolate, and there must also be a full package of community social and mental health support available too. And finally, we need a proper system of public health screening at all ports of entry, with adequate quarantine where necessary.
IS: Have any countries around the world successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy?
RW: New Zealand has now lifted all restrictions, having reduced community transmission to zero. Vietnam, with a population of over 90 million and long land borders with several other countries, has suffered 35 deaths in total. Vietnam’s locally based public sector test, trace, isolate and support system really is world beating. Taiwan, with a population density higher than ours, has had a total of 7 deaths. Australia is an important example that we should study carefully, since it shows that even from a poor starting point it is possible to shift towards a successful elimination strategy. Transmission rates in Australia were as high as they were in the UK a few months ago. On 13 January 2021 Australia only had 8 new recorded cases. China was widely mocked for their Wuhan lockdown at the outset of this pandemic; no one is laughing at them now. All of these countries have shown that a Zero Covid strategy is both feasible and effective.
IS: The Morning Star has provided extensive coverage of the Zero Covid campaign. Can you give an idea of the level of support the campaign has in the wider media, in parliament and in the expert community?
RW: The scientists and medics of Independent Sage have consistently advocated an elimination strategy. Other scientists on the other hand, are happy to serve the interests of capital. Patrick Vallance was until recently President, R&D at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and shares the same corporate world view as Boris Johnson. The Great Barrington Declaration was funded by the same billionaires who have previously promoted climate change denial and skepticism over the links between tobacco and cancer.
The Morning Star has provided exemplary coverage of this crisis. The wider mainstream media have played a far less salutary role. The worst coverage has come from the BBC, which has been little better than a propaganda mouthpiece for government policy. Most of the media gleefully parrot the false government narrative that the current catastrophe is the fault of irresponsible members of the public.
The front bench of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been almost as bad. This is all the more astonishing when we consider that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus has acknowledged the failure of containment and the need for a more serious elimination strategy. However, a handful of MPs, notably Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, have swum against the stream and consistently advocated a principled Zero Covid strategy.
IS: Regular lockdowns and restrictions on movement and socialising have negatively impacted people’s ability to organise and take action. What can concerned individuals do to support your campaign?
RW: Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, we have over the past year learned new ways to organise and take action. Who among us had heard of Zoom this time last year? We are now able to meet regularly with others not only in different cities of the UK, but also globally. This new and enhanced capacity to communicate and organise will stand us in good stead for the future. We are also finding new ways to organise for safety in the workplace. The National Education Union has played an exemplary role in this regard. Their action last week was instrumental in forcing the government to close the schools as part of the current lockdown. The NEU was motivated not only by concerns for the health and safety of its members in the workplace, but more importantly by the needs of the wider community. That is the scale of solidarity we want to encourage.
If and when the government lifts the current lockdown, we will once again return to the streets in safe, masked, socially distanced protest action. We know now that the public overwhelmingly supports measures to bring this pandemic under control. Our job as a campaign is to mobilise that opinion into an unstoppable movement, through both online and safe outdoor protest action.
Find out more at https://zerocovid.uk/