Tag Archives: Coronavirus

A Timeline Of The Plague Year

A Timeline Of The Plague Year
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 April 2021

To mark the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown, last month the Guardian published profiles of Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

“The wealthy civil servant’s year of speaking truth to power”, was the title of the fawning article on Vallance. Discussing the early days of the pandemic, the Guardian’s Rupert Neate asserted “Vallance may have been one of the few people in Whitehall who understood what was coming”. Echoing the title, he noted “Vallance’s friends and colleagues say that he is not afraid to speak scientific truth to power.”

The profile on Whitty was similarly obsequious, titled: “The calm voice who steered a nation in crisis”. The co-authors Ian Sample and Heather Stewart wrote “The crisis has demanded dedication and stamina, but Whitty has also needed the trust of those around him”. There is a brief reference to mistakes made in the early days of the crisis, such as Whitty responding to covid as if it was a flu pandemic, but overall the tone is deeply flattering. “Whitty’s calm authority appealed far beyond Westminster”, they note.

All of which makes the 2019 claim made by Guardian Editor Katharine Viner that Guardian journalists “believe in holding the powerful to account” sounds rather hollow. More accurate is journalist Peter Oborne’s recent analysis in the Morning Star: “We have to understand that the British media class is an instrument of power and should be treated as such rather than a fourth estate holding power to account.”

Partly in response to the media’s poor performance at the beginning of the pandemic, since April 2020 Rupert Read and I have been compiling a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus. Updated and published every week since then and now totalling over 69,000 words, the timeline is made up of thousands of sources, including press reports, television and radio news, medical journals, health experts and organisations, trade unions and polling results.

Working with editor Joanna Booth, we have just published the timeline as a free eBook and pay-to-print book too – titled A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

So how does the Guardian’s stenography on Vallance and Whitty compare to the information found in our timeline?

For starters, the deadly concept of “herd immunity” is not mentioned in either of the two profiles. Herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected or vaccinated, and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus.

In contrast, our timeline records that a senior politician told the Sunday Times he “had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January [2020] and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity.”

Vallance was even clearer about the government’s strategy on BBC’s Today programme on 13 March 2020. One of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission”, he noted.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March 2020. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus at the time – around 1%, according to a Guardian report on 7 March 2020 – would have meant around half a million deaths in the UK to achieve herd immunity. Second, there was ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’, as the Sunday Times explained on 24 May 2020.

Vallance and Whitty also made a series of catastrophic calls in the run up to the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. On 9 March 2020 Vallance said holding “mass gatherings and so on — actually don’t make much difference”. Three days later he asserted “the peak may be something like 10 to 14 weeks away – it could be a bit longer”. The peak was actually under four weeks away, with 1,461 deaths recorded on 8 April 2020.

Discussing restrictive measures, such as lockdown, to fight the virus at a Downing Street press conference, on 9 March 2020 Whitty stated “There is a risk if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of SPI-B (the group that provided behavioral science advice to government), later described Whitty’s analysis as “just plain wrong”. Similarly, A BBC Newsnight investigation broadcast in July 2020 concluded there “doesn’t appear to have been much evidence… at the time” for Whitty’s claim that if lockdown is implemented too early people would get “fatigued”. Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London and member of SPI-B, commented: “this term ‘behavioural fatigue’… certainly didn’t come from SPI-B, and it is not a behavioural science term. If you look in the literature you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist”.

The delay to lockdown was extremely costly. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March 2020. By 23 March 2020 the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. “Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world”, the Sunday Times noted in May 2020. A December 2020 report by Imperial College estimated that imposing a national lockdown in just one week earlier in March 2020 would have saved 21,000 lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact Vallance and Whitty have been at the centre of the government’s response to the crisis, which means they oversaw the decision to stop mass testing on 12 March 2020, the ending of the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots a day later, the thousands of deaths in care homes and the shambolic test and trace programme.

With over 150,000 people having died from covid in the UK, according to Office for National Statistics figures, the government’s response has been, as Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton noted, “a national scandal”.

None of this highly pertinent and damning information appeared in the two Guardian profiles.

In contrast, all of the information above can be found in our timeline, along with other key aspects of the crisis, including the mounting death toll, lockdowns, the Personal Protective Equipment shortage, the (lack of) border closures, the disastrous Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the dangers of Long Covid, and support for a Zero Covid strategy.  

We hope our comprehensive account of the plague year will be useful to anyone interested in understanding the UK government’s response to the crisis, historians studying the pandemic in the future and to the public inquiry that must be established.

“They really are scared that the verdict of history is going to condemn them for contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of British citizens”, Horton commented about the UK government in April 2020. “They are desperately trying to rewrite the timeline of what happened. And we must not let them do that.”

A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read is available as a free PDF download, free ebook and pay-to-print book from https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/ . Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 April 2021

“There is… no credible route to a zero covid Britain or indeed a zero covid world”, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 22 February. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”.

To confirm, a zero covid strategy aims for the total elimination of covid. Many people may be confused, thinking “Isn’t this exactly what the government has been trying to do since the start of the pandemic?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. The UK has followed what science writer Laura Spinney recently described in the Guardian as “a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible.”

The Prime Minister’s dismissal of zero covid puts him at odds with a large body of scientific expertise. In early July 2020 Independent SAGE published a report calling on the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and follow a “new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVIDUK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK”.

Individual members of the group – including ex-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and Professors Anthony Costello, Christina Pagel and Susan Michie from UCL – have continued to push for zero covid since then.

And there is some support amongst the government’s own scientific advisers, including Professor Robert West from University College London and Professor Stephen Reicher from University of St Andrews – both member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

In addition, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh and clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from Queen Mary have also voiced support.

In parliament, zero covid is backed by the Socialist Campaign Group of more than 30 MPs, and in August 2020 Layla Moran MP, as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (consisting of 60 MPs and Peers), wrote to the Prime Minister pushing for a zero covid strategy.

Turning to the national press, the Morning Star was, as far as I can tell, the first UK national newspaper to support zero covid, while the Guardian backed it in a December 2020 editorial.

Speaking on BBC’s Politics Live in February, Pagel summarised the key reasons for pursuing an elimination strategy: “Keeping cases low is by far the best for keeping the economy open, and for saving lives, and for reducing the chances of a new variant, and for preventing Long Covid”.

In short, it would mean less people getting seriously ill, and less people dying.  

However, while there is significant support for zero covid, there is also considerable opposition, often based on a number of evidence-light assertions:

Zero covid is not possible.

New Zealand and Taiwan have both successfully pursued an elimination strategy. New Zealand has had 26 deaths from covid. Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million and a population density of 652 people per square kilometre (the UK’s population density is around 275 people per square kilometre), has limited its death toll from covid to just ten people. The UK has recorded over 125,000 deaths from covid.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “I’m puzzled by this, because it’s not just Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan (adopting zero-Covid tactics), which are islands, but it’s also Vietnam, and there are other parts of the world that have been very successful even if they do have challenges, like Uruguay or Rwanda or Finland or Norway… So there are plenty of places that are trying to do this [achieve zero-Covid status].”

Zero covid is not possible at this point in time as the UK has such a high number of cases across the nation.

China is pursuing an elimination strategy, and according to a January CNBC report on Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, “Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants.”

Similarly, the Australian state of Victoria (population 6.7 million), recorded 723 new cases on one day in July 2020. On the same day the UK recorded 763 new cases. However, on 4 November 2020, Hassan Vally, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University, noted in the Guardian, “Victoria is recording no new cases, while the UK has 18,950.”

“The goal was not just to slow Covid-19 down. It was to eradicate the virus”, Vox reported in December about Victoria’s success.

However, even if it is not possible to completely eliminate new cases in UK right now, a government committed to zero covid would significantly reduce cases, and therefore significantly reduce deaths. As Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, and McKee, noted in the Guardian in January: “Aiming for zero-Covid” produces “more positive results than trying to ‘live with the virus’”.

Zero covid would mean more, perhaps endless, restrictions and lockdowns.

In fact the exact opposite is true. “A zero covid strategy (which means zero tolerance of any level of infection) is the antithesis of lockdown. It is the failure to implement such a strategy – and hence the loss of control over infection – which leads to lockdown”, Reicher tweeted in February.

Thus, sporting events have been held in packed stadiums in New Zealand, and the country’s Prime Minister Jacina Ardern has been posting videos of herself at community BBQs. To date Taiwan has not had any national lockdowns.

Zero covid is redundant now we have the vaccine.

In March the Guardian reported “Experts on the modelling subgroup of SAGE calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.” This testimony points to an uncomfortable fact – the vaccination programme, while very important, will not prevent a large number of deaths over the next few months. Moreover, “We have to prevent new variants arising that put our entire vaccination programme at risk, and potentially set us back to the beginning again”, Pagel explained on BBC Newsnight in February. “The more opportunities it [the virus] has to infect people, the more chance it has to mutate. So the lower cases are, the less chance it is going to have.”

Frustratingly much of the left has failed to back a zero covid strategy. Where are the unions – the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Momentum?

Key left-wing figures have dismissed or questioned zero covid. In September, Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley tweeted “’it’s just like the flu, calm down’ and ‘we must have zero covid’ are both bad takes”. Elsewhere, Richard Seymour recently tweeted he was “still unsure about zero covid”, while Novara Media’s Michael Walker has argued an elimination strategy was the right course of action in summer 2020 but with the introduction of the vaccine he no longer supports it.

There is still lots of work to do to persuade the broad left – and wider society – to back a zero covid strategy. One thing every reader can do is contact their MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1450, which “calls on the UK Government urgently to adopt a zero covid plan that seeks the maximum suppression of the virus as the best way to save lives and allow our communities and the economy to safely reopen.” So far 42 MPs have put their names to the EDM, including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Tim Farron and Plaid Cymru MPs.

More broadly, a campaign strategy of pressuring members of the SAGE group advising government to publicly support zero covid could well be the best way to apply pressure on the government itself.

As McKee noted in a letter published in the BMJ in October: “No one pretends that achieving zero covid is easy, but in the long term the alternative is far worse.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

New book published – ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’

I have a new book out. Co-authored with Rupert Read (and edited by Joanna Booth) ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’ is, we think, the most comprehensive record of the UK government’s response to covid.

Covering key aspects of the crisis, including the huge death toll, lockdowns, herd immunity policy, the Personal Protective Equipment, care homes, long covid, the test and trace system, border closures, Eat Out To Help Out and statements made by official government advisors and independent experts, we believe the timeline is a must read for anyone interested in understanding what happened and stopping it happening again

Free ebook and pay-to-print book available here: https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
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/

Groundhog Day: The government’s shameful response to the second COVID surge

Groundhog Day: The government’s shameful response to the second COVID surge
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2020

The UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a ‘national scandal’, as I wrote in PN six months ago. (See PN 2642 – 2643) Reaching its peak in terms of infections and deaths in March and April, the virus killed an estimated 65,400 people in the UK by mid-June, according to the Financial Times. At the time, this huge death toll was the highest in Europe, and the second-highest in the world after the United States.

Following the introduction of the national lockdown on 23 March, the prevalence of the virus reduced significantly in the UK over the summer. However, despite a warning from its own expert scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) that coming out of lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths by the end of the year (Sunday Times, 10 May), the government pursued a reckless strategy of opening up the economy from May onwards.

Shops were allowed to re-open on 15 June, international travel restrictions were relaxed on 6 July, and people were urged to return to work after 1 August. On 3 August, the government introduced its ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme which encouraged people to eat in restaurants by providing money off their bills. Supported by the Labour party leadership, the government reopened schools and universities in September.
The predictable outcome of all these measures has been a huge surge in the virus, with Imperial College London estimating 96,000 new cases every day in England alone by the end of October (BBC News, 29 October).

On 2 September, the government’s scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling reported that people returning to the UK from abroad were spreading the virus – because of poor compliance with quarantine and the lack of testing at airports (Guardian, 18 September). On 22 September, the government U-turned on its earlier advice and began asking people to work from home if they could (Guardian, 22 September). A University of Warwick study found that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had caused a ‘significant’ rise in new infections (Sky News, 30 October).

Untested, untraced

Despite the World Health Organisation warning that an effective contact-tracing system needed to be in place before lockdown was lifted (Guardian, 14 June), the UK’s privately-run test-and-trace system has lurched from one crisis to the next.

On 14 September, LBC radio requested a test in all of the top 10 virus hotspots in England. They discovered that no walk-in, drive-through or home tests were available.

In the week ending 7 October, the test-and-trace system recorded its worst-ever week for contact-tracing, reaching only 62.6 percent of close contacts of people who had tested positive in England (Independent, 15 October).

Moreover, documents released by SAGE in August noted that less than 20 percent of people in England fully self-isolate when asked to do so (Guardian, 11 September). This was even though SAGE have said 80 percent of the contacts of all symptomatic cases must be found and isolated to stop the virus spreading (Independent SAGE, 11 June).

Unsurprisingly, on 21 September, SAGE concluded the test-and-trace system was still only ‘having a marginal impact on transmission’.

Too little, too late – again

In August, experts began warning of the dangers of the surging virus, with a government report suggesting a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ of 85,000 deaths across the UK this winter due to COVID-19 (BBC News, 29 August).

On 21 September, SAGE warned the government that the country faced a ‘very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences’, and recommended immediately introducing a national two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus (Guardian, 13 October).

The government ignored this advice, instead introducing an ineffective 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, followed by a three-tiered system of restrictions in England on 12 October.

At the press conference announcing the new three-tier system, England’s chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty, said: ‘I am not confident – and nor is anybody confident – that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates… would be enough to get on top of [the virus]’ (Sky News, 12 October).

Whitty was proven right. On 31 October – five and a half weeks after SAGE’s 21 September recommendation – the prime minister finally announced a national four-week lockdown for England, starting on 6 November. Primary and secondary schools and universities were to remain open.

Noting that there is ‘substantial transmission’ in secondary schools, professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London and a member of SAGE, said that not closing them would likely mean ‘we may need to be in lockdown for longer than we might otherwise have to be’.

Hayward also explained that, if the government had instituted a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown when advised to by SAGE on 21 September, ‘we would definitely have saved thousands of lives and we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do’ (BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 2 November).

Into action

As with the first wave, the government’s response to the recent surge has often been evidence-light, contradictory and, importantly for activists, vulnerable to external pressure.

For example, the government has twice been forced to change its policy on free school meals vouchers – which are given to around 1.3 million children in England. The Johnson administration had said these vouchers would stop during the summer holidays, but were driven into a U-turn in June. They then said that the vouchers would not be distributed over the Christmas holidays, but had to retreat on 8 November. Both times, the government were forced to climb down because of campaigns led by professional footballer Marcus Rashford, who received free school meals during his childhood.

The introduction of the second lockdown itself was another huge U-turn.

As late as 21 October, Boris Johnson said he opposed a national lockdown (Guardian, 31 October).

When Johnson announced the restrictions, he claimed ‘no responsible prime minister’ could ignore new data which showed ‘the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advisers’.

However, the Observer (31 October) reported ‘private anger among the government’s scientific advisers, who say that concerns about exceeding the reasonable worst-case scenarios had been known about for weeks’.

It seems likely, then, the government’s hand was forced by the reality of the surging virus combined with pressure from SAGE and the Labour party, public support for stronger measures (YouGov, 22 September), and the response of other nations (Ireland announced a second lockdown on 19 October, with France and Germany following on 28 October).

There are a couple of potentially game-changing issues that grassroots activists could rally around.

First, a campaign to transfer the crisis-ridden privatised track-and-trace system into public hands would be hugely popular with the public (Survation/HuffPost UK, 21 September) and unite trade unions, the Labour party, the Green party and groups like Keep Our NHS Public.

Second, activists could support the Socialist Campaign Group of 34 Labour MPs and the People’s Assembly who, along with the Independent SAGE expert group (7 July) and professor Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh (Guardian, 22 June), are pushing the government to adopt a ‘Zero COVID’ strategy – in other words, the elimination of the virus from the UK.

With the UK death toll cautiously estimated to be 72,300 as of 10 November, according to the economics editor at the Financial Times – more than the number of UK civilians who died in the Second World War (House of Commons Library, 10 July 2012) – the extent to which progressive activists are able to challenge and help shift the government’s dangerous response to the pandemic continues to be of the utmost importance.

Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read have compiled – and are regularly updating – a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus:
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews3511

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
25 July 2020

There is a small, but vocal group of people who are strongly opposed to the wearing of masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

One of the most prominent ‘anti-maskers’ is Neil Clark, a self-professed socialist writer and broadcaster. Clark has been posting increasingly absurd, conspiratorial and very dangerous tweets about masks. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘I’m quite disconcerted by the number of people with “Socialist” on their bios who seem to be v. strongly in favour of mandatory mask-wearing irregardless of the evidence & its long term effects. I never knew mandatory masks was a tenet of socialism. Or are we all CCP nowadays?’ (8 July 2020)
  • ‘Mandatory face coverings, no music, theatre or public performances. The Taliban would feel very much at home in Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland. Perhaps they’ll relocate there.’ (8 July 2020)
  • On masks: ‘it has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with control.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘I’d advise any young person or anyone who doesn’t have family commitments to leave the UK & build a new life overseas. There’s no future here under the current Covid insanity. Civil liberties have been destroyed. Our lives trashed. We are no longer a free people. Tyranny rules.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘The “Great Reset” is NOT a conspiracy theory. The radical changes to our lives, our working arrangements, the way we interract with one another, (masks & SD), introduced under the cover of Covid, are meant to be permanent. A “New Normal”. Everyone needs to wake up to this.’ (12 July 2020)
  • On the move to make face masks mandatory in shops: ‘Yup. Safety in numbers. If enough people disobey this insane policy will be unenforceable.’ (14 July 2020)
  • ‘Face masks will become the “new normal” for AT LEAST the next year. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. They want all this stuff to stay.’ (16 July 2020)

As anyone inhabiting the real world will know, there is a large and seemingly growing body of scientific evidence, and a broad consensus amongst scientific and medical experts, that confirms mask wearing can help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Below I have listed some of the expert evidence and advice that supports the wearing of masks, including the World Health Organization, the Royal Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and Independent SAGE.

Despite this wealth of evidence, Neil continues to oppose the wearing of masks. Indeed, Neil repeatedly quote tweets people who disagree with him, but I have not seen him seriously engage with anyone who opposes his evidence-free position.

Thinking of other people, adhering to scientific and medical evidence and trying to reduce unnecessary suffering — all this seems to fit very well with Socialism. However, ignoring huge amounts of scientific and medical evidence, being selfish and endangering the lives of others certainly doesn’t fit with Socialism. Hard-right Republicanism or Conservatism perhaps, but definitely not Socialism.

Evidence in support of wearing masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19:

· A study published in The Lancet concludes ‘We encourage consideration of mass masking during the coming phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are expected to occur in the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine… Mass masking for source control is in our view a useful and low-cost adjunct to social distancing and hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (The Lancet, 16 April 2020)

  • A study in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences concludes ‘that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, 14 May 2020)
  • ‘Wearing a face mask or other covering over the mouth and nose reduces the forward distance travelled by an exhaled breath by more than 90 per cent, research suggests.’ (University of Edinburgh, 22 May 2020)
  • ‘Taking into account the available studies evaluating pre- and asymptomatic transmission, a growing compendium of observational evidence on the use of masks by the general public in several countries, individual values and preferences, as well as the difficulty of physical distancing in many contexts, WHO has updated its guidance to advise that to prevent COVID-19 transmission effectively in areas of community transmission, governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress SARS-CoV-2 transmission.’ (World Health Organization, 5 June 2020)
  • ‘Population-wide use of facemasks keeps the coronavirus ‘reproduction number’ under 1.0, and prevents further waves of the virus when combined with lockdowns, a modelling study led by the University of Cambridge suggests.’ Lead author Dr Richard Stutt comments: ‘Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of facemasks by the public. If widespread facemask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine.’ (University of Cambridge, 10 June 2020)
  • ‘A new study has suggested that the compulsory use of face masks can slow the spread of Covid-19 cases by as much as 40%. The German report, published as a discussion paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, determined that mandatory face masks can “reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%”.The study involved researchers examining the growth rate of cases in regions across Germany in the days following the introduction of masks in shops and on public transport.’ (RTE, 12 June 2020)
  • A study by Virginia Commonwealth University looked at coronavirus death rates in 198 countries in an effort to establish why some had very high death rates and others very low. ‘What we found was that of the big variables that you can control which influence mortality, one was wearing masks’, says Christopher Leffler of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the study’s authors. ‘It wasn’t just by a few per cent, it was up to a hundred times less mortality. The countries that introduced masks from the very beginning of their outbreak have had hardly any deaths.’ (Global News, 22 June 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings are effective in reducing source virus transmission, i.e., outward protection of others, when they are of optimal material and construction (high grade cotton, hybrid and multilayer) and fitted correctly and for source protection of the wearer’ (Royal Society, 26 June 2020)
  • ‘Everyone should carry a face covering when they leave home in order to tackle coronavirus, the head of the UK’s national academy of science has said. Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said the coverings should then be worn “whenever you are in crowded public spaces”.’ (BBC News, 7 July 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings, even homemade masks made of the correct material, are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 — for the wearer and those around them — according to a new study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.’ (University of Oxford, 8 July 2020)
  • ‘Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that anyone symptomatic for suspected coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) should wear a face covering during transport to medical care and prior to isolation to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets. After emerging data documented transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from persons without symptoms, the recommendation was expanded to the general community’. John T. Brooks, MD; Jay C. Butler, MD; Robert R. Redfield, MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Journal of the American Medical Association, 14 July 2020)
  • ‘The case of two hairdressers who developed symptoms of COVID-19 and then saw 139 clients before they stopped working, apparently without transmitting the virus to any of them, demonstrates the effectiveness of mandatory face mask policies , according to new research’, published in the weekly morbidity and mortality report of the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. (FR24 News, 14 July 2020)
  • “Although we haven’t yet got the gold standard randomised control trial evidence about whether face coverings are effective at preventing the transmission of Covid-19, existing studies are convincing of their benefits.” — Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh (Guardian, 15 July 2020)
  • Independent SAGE recommend the government ‘launch a comprehensive public information campaign to promote effective wearing of face coverings in enclosed public indoor spaces where distancing from others is not possible.’ (Independent SAGE, 15 July 2020)
  • ‘A newly published study’ published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests ‘that universal use of surgical masks helped reduce rates of confirmed Covid-19 infections among health-care workers at the Mass General Brigham health-care system in Massachusetts.’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)
  • ‘Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes the pandemic could be brought under control over the next four to eight weeks if “we could get everybody to wear a mask right now.”’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

While there are always some people who are quick to dismiss grassroots activism as ineffective, the last couple of months has provided inspiring case studies showing how protest can have a huge impact on the government and the wider political landscape.

For instance, the coronavirus crisis may have trapped most of us at home during lockdown, but public pressure has forced the government’s hand on several important issues.

In April a “cabinet source” spoke to the Telegraph about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’

The government has also been pushed into making two embarrassing U-turns. As the Guardian recently explained: “The phased opening of schools in England began at the beginning of June, but the government shelved plans to get every primary school child back in class for at least a month before the summer holiday, in the face of the opposition from unions and some scientists.”

Even more spectacular was the government’s retreat on free school meals vouchers, which it had said would stop outside of term time, affecting about 1.3 million children in England.

In response the 22-year old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the government explaining the importance of the scheme to children, highlighting his family’s reliance on the scheme when he was younger. Downing Street rejected his protest, with ministers sent out to defend the government’s position. However, with extensive media coverage and growing support the government reversed its position within 24-hours and confirmed free school meals vouchers would continue during school holidays.

And even when public opposition doesn’t win a clear victory over government – which is most of the time – it can still have important results. So the furore over Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown didn’t end with the Prime Minister’s closest adviser being sacked but it likely massively wounded him. As a “source” told the Telegraph last month: “People just aren’t scared of him any more. Everyone knows he is one wrong move from being out of a job.”

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May and subsequent demonstrations in the US, the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK have been hugely impactful too.

According to government figures, approximately 137,000 people attended more than 200 protests in the UK over the weekend of 6-7 June. After protesters toppled the statue of slaver Edward Colston on 7 June, Tower Hamlets council quickly removed the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan and Oriel College at Oxford University agreed to take down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The University of Liverpool has also agreed to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone because of his links to the slave trade.

In addition, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he would set up a commission to review London’s landmarks to ensure they reflect the capital’s diversity. A day later the Guardian reported “all Labour councils in England and Wales said they would examine statues and monuments.”

More broadly, the protests have triggered a national conversation on British racism and colonialism, with renewed demands for Black history to be made a mandatory part of the national curriculum. And while there is already a slavery museum in Liverpool, there are growing calls for a national museum of slavery.

While coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter agitation have received extensive media coverage, another hugely important example of the power of protest seems was barely noticed by the mainstream media.

“For now, fracking is over”, Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC’s North West Tonight programme on 18 June. “We had a moratorium on fracking last year and frankly the debate’s moved on. It is not something that we’re looking to do.”

As well as accurately describing Kwarteng’s statement as “a victory for the planet and our future existence on it”, Green Party peer Jenny Jones was correct when she told the Independent: “The end of fracking in the UK is a victory for all the campaigners who faced arrest in order to stop another climate chaos technology from taking root.”

Then Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the government was “going all out” for fracking in January 2014. He rejected calls for a moratorium on fracking a year later. However, with just a single well fracked in the UK since 2011, in 2018 the Guardian reported “Cameron has told US oil executives of his frustration that the UK has failed to embrace fracking despite his best efforts, and hit out at green groups for being ‘absolutely obsessed’ with blocking new fossil fuel extraction.”

A number of hopeful lessons can be taken from these successful struggles.

First, although the Tory Party won a majority of eighty seats in the December general election, the government is susceptible to public pressure at the moment.

Second, extra-parliamentary action is as important – arguably more important – than what happens in parliament. This is crucial to understand when the Labour Party is shifting away from the social movements and unions that backed Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and trying to project itself as a more professional and very much parliamentary-focussed alternative to the Tories. But this shift to the right doesn’t alter how change is made. As British author Gary Younge wrote in December: “progressive change is enacted through parliament, but it rarely begins there.”

Third, it is important not to be complacent. Yes, public pressure and direct action have changed government policy for the better, but this has only happened because of the hard work of campaigners over weeks, months, years, even decades. Citing the sociologist Charles Tilly, the historian Keith Flett had some wise words in a letter published in the Guardian last year: “Effective protest that leads to real change is a difficult thing to achieve and historically has required… an entire repertoire of contention”. To win more victories, and bigger and more important victories such as overturning the government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis, will require a huge and sustained surge in grassroots activism and organisation.

One of my favourite quotes – from former slave Frederick Douglass – is famous for a reason: because it is true. “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters”, he said in 1857. “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June 2020

Due to the extraordinary nature of the crisis, the UK government has had an unprecedented opportunity to control the narrative about their response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the daily Number 10 press briefings there has been a months-long, multi-faceted public information campaign using television and radio spots, social media posts, billboards, wrap around messaging on the front of all major newspapers and a letter to every household in the UK.

Despite this communications advantage, there has been increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis from sections of the media, health and science experts, opposition political parties, trade unions and the general public.

In response, the government has rolled out a number of common retorts – they are ‘following the science’, their primary motivation has been to save lives, and it is easy to criticise in retrospect, as ex-cabinet minister baroness Nicky Morgan said on BBC Any Questions (22 May).

A careful reading of mainstream news reports tells a very different story – one which supports Lancet editor-in-chief Dr Richard Horton’s description of the government’s response as ‘a national scandal’ (BBC Question Time, 26 March). The UK’s official death toll of 41,969 as of 16 June – the highest in Europe, and the second highest in the world after the United States – confirms Horton’s criticism. Due to deficiencies in how deaths are recorded, the government’s figures are likely a significant underestimate: by the same date the Financial Times estimated the number of UK excess deaths linked to coronavirus to be 65,400.

‘It goes right back to 2010’

While nearly all media coverage has focused on the period since the outbreak in China in December 2019, the UK government’s reaction has much deeper roots. ‘It goes right back to 2010, when the [Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition] government came in with a very clear policy to reduce public spending across the board, including the National Health Service’, sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, told LBC radio on 15 April when asked about the UK’s response being slower than other countries. ‘I’m afraid these austerity measures did lead to the cutting back on the risk management programmes’.

The government also ignored several warnings about the possibility of a pandemic and its lack of preparedness. In October 2016 a three-day training called Exercise Cygnus was held on how to deal with a pandemic, involving all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities. According to the Sunday Telegraph (28 March) the unpublished report of the exercise concluded ‘There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses’ and ‘the NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds’.

Publishing a leaked copy of the report on 7 May, the Guardian provided more detail: ‘it contained 26 key recommendations, including boosting the capacity of care homes and the numbers of staff available to work in them’ and ‘warned of the challenge facing homes asked to take in patients from hospitals.’

A senior academic directly involved in Exercise Cygnus and the current pandemic noted ‘These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it’ (Sunday Telegraph, 28 March).

In September 2017 the National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies was published by the Cabinet Office, noting ‘there is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring’ with ‘up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.’

More recently, on 30 January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. According to David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College, London, ‘That is the highest level of alert that WHO can issue… It made it very clear then – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious indeed’ (Guardian, 18 April).

Herd immunity

Though ministers have repeatedly denied it, the concept of ‘herd immunity’ seems to have been central to the government’s response plan (herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus).

The government’s stated ‘mitigation’ strategy – to delay the spread of the virus, and reduce and broaden the peak so the NHS is not overwhelmed – fits with the goal of herd immunity, as chief scientific advisor sir Patrick Vallance explained on the BBC Today programme (Guardian, 13 March).

According to a ‘senior politician’, the chief medical officer Chris Whitty was ‘absolutely focused on herd immunity’ when they spoke in late January (Sunday Times, 19 April). The prime minister Boris Johnson himself floated the idea – without naming it – on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March. Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 13 March, sir Patrick said one of ‘the key things we need to do’ is ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission’.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March, if not before. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus – around 1% (Guardian, 7 March) – means a large number of people would die by the time the UK achieved herd immunity. Putting these figures together with the 66.6 million population of the UK, we would end up with around half a million deaths in order to achieve the 80 percent level of people with antibodies.

Second, there was – and still is – ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’ (Sunday Times, 24 May). As WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC Today programme on 14 March: ‘We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms’.

Despite these deadly flaws, the government’s herd immunity plan to manage rather than suppress the spread of the virus likely shaped other decisions that have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, including ending the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots on 13 March (Financial Times, 23-24 May), the cancellation of contact tracing and mass testing, and the delayed national lockdown.

Ditching tracing and testing

When people started getting infected in the UK, the government established a programme to test suspected cases and trace people they had been in contact with. However, on 12 March the government announced it would no longer try to ‘track and trace’ everyone suspected of having the virus, while testing would be limited to patients in hospital with serious breathing problems (Guardian, 13 March).

This U-turn contradicted WHO recommendations. ‘The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate’, WHO Director General said on 16 March. ‘You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.’

‘We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case’, he noted: ‘If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with… and test those people too’ (WHO, 16 March).

On 17 April the Health Secretary belatedly announced the government would restart tracing the contacts of people who have had coronavirus symptoms, with 1 June as the planned start date.

Too slow to lockdown

On 24 January professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College’s School of Public Health and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee, submitted a report to ministers and officials. According to the Sunday Times (19 April), the report noted ‘There needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown’.

Similarly, on 26 February infectious disease modeller professor John Edmunds and his team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented their latest ‘worst scenario’ predictions to the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on modelling (SPI-M).

This group advises the country’s scientific decision-makers on SAGE. ‘It warned that 27 million people could be infected and 220,000 intensive care beds would be needed if no action were taken to reduce infection rates’, the Sunday Times (19 April) reported. ‘The predicted death toll was 380,000. Edmunds’ colleague Nick Davies, who led the research, says the report emphasised the urgent need for a lockdown’.

A further investigation by the Sunday Times (24 May) reported that modelling teams from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine separately concluded that if the government’s mitigation strategy continued, there could be approximately 250,000 deaths – results they passed onto SAGE on 3 March.

However, the government only implemented a national lockdown on 23 March. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March. By 23 March the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. ‘Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world’, the Sunday Times (24 May) notes.

Exiting lockdown

After coming under pressure to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from right-wing Tories and the leaders of the Scottish National Party (The Times, 24 April) and Labour party (Guardian, 15 April), on 10 May the prime minister Boris Johnson announced a loosening of the lockdown. He urged people in jobs such as construction and manufacturing to return to work, gave permission for unlimited outdoor exercise and suggested shops might open in June.

However, with new daily cases estimated to be 20,000 (The Times, 8 May) and a contact tracing programme still not in place, many experts were quick to warn it was too early to loosen the lockdown. Professor Edmunds warned that the current level of cases made it ‘probably impossible’ to control the outbreak through contact tracing (The Times, 8 May).

David Hunter, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford, noted ‘If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered’ (Guardian, 11 May). Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the UK did not ‘have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus’ and therefore ‘what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again’ (BBC Question Time, 14 May).

The importance of activism

Notwithstanding the government’s criminally negligent response to the crisis and the huge UK death toll, there is some hopeful evidence the government and Tory party are worried about public opinion, and susceptible to public pressure.

Citing one senior MP, in early April the Guardian noted the Tory party was ‘watching the polls closely’ (2 April), while on 18 April the Telegraph published a revealing quote from a ‘cabinet source’ about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’ And following reports the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown, the Guardian noted MPs ‘said they were motivated by anger among their constituents’ (30 May), while the Telegraph reported some Tory MPs ‘said they would wait to see how their constituents responded before passing judgement’ (26 May).

Unlike the UK’s response to the climate crisis, post-9/11 foreign policy or anti-nuclear weapons activism, this influence has come about without any organised national grassroots campaign or group informing and directing public outrage and resistance.

Activists, then, have an important role to play in maximising pressure on the government, including tracking and drawing attention to government failures, establishing campaign groups and organising a coordinated response.

Why the government is wrong to say the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed by Covid-19

Why the government is wrong to say the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed by Covid-19
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
30 June 2020

Appearing on the BBC Today Programme on 6 April the Health Secretary noted a “core goal” during the pandemic was “making sure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed.”

“Which everybody was telling me a month ago was impossible to achieve but that has been achieved”, Matt Hancock said.

The Prime Minister exhibited even more audacity at the end of April. The UK had “avoided the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world”, he bragged, seemingly unaware the UK had one of the highest death tolls in the world. How could Boris Johnson make this claim? “Because at no stage has our NHS been overwhelmed”, he said.

Showing its gullible establishment colours, the Guardian repeated the government’s narrative, stating on 17 April that the NHS “has been able to cope”.

In reality these statements are only true if you ignore some very obvious, inconvenient facts.

First, news reports have confirmed that in mid-March the NHS was ordered to discharge 15,000 patients from hospital to free up space for people with Covid-19.

Hundreds were sent to care homes, which “were put under pressure by the NHS to accept people at short notice”, the Times reported on 15 May. Moreover, “people were not tested before being moved” (only on 16 April did the government announce patients would be tested before being discharged into care homes). This exodus seems to have been enabled by Public Health England’s National Infection Service changing their guidance on discharging patients from hospital on 19 March, which meant “hospitals no longer needed to avoid sending patients to care homes, a decision which was heavily criticised”, the Telegraph reported on 6 May.

Quoted in the Times on 13 April, Robert Kilgour, owner of Renaissance Care which runs 15 care homes in Scotland, said there was “huge discouragement by the authorities to hospitalise, a wish to keep them where they are and look after them where they are”. He also mentioned “instances of ambulances taking residents to hospital and returning and coming straight back.” This is confirmed by Professor Martin Green, spokesperson for Care England’s larger care companies, who told the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee some areas had “blanket policies not to admit residents to hospital.”

During Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 May, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer read out testimony from a cardiologist: “We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared with no formal warning that patients were infected, no testing available and no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable”.

As Toynbee summarises: “The NHS was only saved, Green alleges, because hospitals dumped the crisis on care homes.”

The government’s policy of discharging patients from hospitals during the pandemic was likely a key reason why the death toll is so high in care homes – at least 15,000 people have died in UK care homes from confirmed or suspected Covid-19, the Guardian reported on 14 June.

Another reason why the government’s claim the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed doesn’t hold water is because the government artificially suppressed demand for the NHS – by discouraging people from accessing NHS services during the early stages of the crisis.

On 16 March the government said people should only use the NHS “where we really need to”, and get advice on the NHS website where possible.

This messaging caused predictable results. In March “the number of people going to their local emergency department fell by 600,000, or 29 per cent, compared to same month last year”, the Independent reported.

More broadly, at the end of April the Guardian revealed “Doctors have postponed more than 2m operations after non-emergency surgery was cancelled for at least three months to free up beds for coronavirus patients.” It will take “many years” for the NHS to get back to a good position, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons commented.

It’s worth considering what so-called non-emergency care really means. “Almost two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions have been denied care by the NHS because hospitals have focused on fighting Covid-19”, the Guardian noted earlier this month, citing research from Essex University. “Seven out of 10 people with diabetes, 65% of those with high blood pressure and 64% of people suffering from breathing problems have had care cancelled by the NHS across the UK during the pandemic.”

According to Cancer Research UK nearly 2.5 million Britons have not been screened, tested or treated for cancer because of the disruption to the NHS during the crisis. They estimate more than 24,000 cases of cancer have likely gone undiagnosed as a result of this suspension of normal services, with the delays in treatment meaning some people’s disease is now inoperable.

So, yes, technically the NHS might not have been overwhelmed during the crisis. But this was only because the government recklessly discharged thousands of vulnerable patients – including infected people – into care homes and the community, discouraged the public not to access healthcare, and massively cut back on NHS services, thus creating huge long-term problems for the NHS and additional pain and suffering for thousands of people.

Appalling though it is, the government’s claim to have successfully protected the NHS is just one dangerous deception amongst many in what has arguably been the largest campaign of government deceit since Iraq.

And the lies are never-ending. Just this month a new analysis by the Guardian found that in April “more than 1,000 people died [from Covid-19] every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days – in stark contrast with daily tolls announced by the government”. Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, said the gap between the government’s figures and the true death toll was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.

On 20 May Boris Johnson told the House of Commons “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1”. Yet on 18 June the government announced it had abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app – “after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work”, the Guardian reported.  On the same day the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, made up of preeminent science and medical experts from the UK and around the world, described the government’s wider contact tracing system as “not fit for purpose”. They noted figures released by the government reveal “extensive data gaps” and “the actual number of daily and weekly cases in the community is unknown because testing has been chaotic and haphazard”. Therefore, “we do not know how many cases have been missed and have not been transferred for contact tracing”. Furthermore, the group noted “we have no idea how many people contacted are actually isolating and what health or other support they are receiving”.

This Inspector Clouseau-level of incompetence means the results of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government Lockdown Rollback Checklist shouldn’t be a surprise. Published on 1 June and ranking countries according to the extent they meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for rolling back lockdown, the UK appears in 167th place in a league table of 170 nations.

With the poor and BAME people making up a disproportionate number of the more than 63,000 excess deaths in the UK the Office for National Statistics estimates due to Covid-19, as ever it’s the most vulnerable members of society who bear the brunt of the government’s criminal negligence.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The coronavirus crisis: where is the British left?

The coronavirus crisis: where is the British left?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 June 2020

From mid-April onwards the government came under intense pressure to start lifting the lockdown it had imposed on 23 March.

A relatively early loosening of restrictions was supported by business groups and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press and cabinet (Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel and perhaps Michael Gove too). Pressure was also applied by the leaders of the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Whatever the actual detail of their policy positions, it was obvious to anyone with a pulse how their public statements would be perceived by the media and wider political establishment. Keir Starmer Calls For Ministers To Set Out Plans To End Lockdown was a 15 April headline in the Guardian. “Ministers are under mounting pressure to reveal their plans for easing lockdown after senior Tories said that Nicola Sturgeon was right to outline her strategy for a ‘new normal’ in Scotland”, reported the Times newspaper on its front page on 24 April.

Ranged against these forces – or at least not as gung-ho – were a number of powerful actors in the national debate. For example, it has been widely reported Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock were both more cautious than many in the cabinet when it came to lifting the lockdown.

Lots of experts stood in opposition to loosening the lockdown. On 7 May Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, tweeted: “Dear Prime Minister – Please don’t dilute your policy of lockdown. Not yet. We have come so far. We need 3 more weeks”

Writing in the Guardian on 11 May David Hunter, Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford, argued “If we… return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered”.

Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, echoed these concerns when she appeared on BBC Question Time a few days later. “We don’t have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus”, she explained. “And if the lockdown starts opening up now before we have the infrastructure in place, it’s basically pointless… what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again”.

Public opinion was also very cautious. A 3 May Opinium poll showed 67% of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78% and 81% opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84% against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume. Similarly, 75% of respondents answered it would be wrong for the government to start loosening lockdown now, according to a YouGov survey released on 8 May.

These surveys are important because the Tory Party was “watching the polls closely”, according to an early April Guardian report. A couple of weeks later a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph discussing the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. “It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind”, they noted, after explaining ‘We didn’t want to go down this route [of a lockdown] in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown.”

We now know, of course, the government didn’t wait for the public to change its mind.

Speaking to an estimated audience of 27.5 million, on 10 May the Prime Minister announced the loosening of the lockdown. People who can’t work from home should be “actively encouraged” to return to work, Boris Johnson said. He also said that people could now take unlimited outdoor exercise, and outlined a phased plan to open primary schools and shops in June.

The Prime Minister’s statement demonstrated that business and economic interests had prevailed over public health concerns.

There are lots of signs the easing of the lockdown will be a disaster. On 7 May Sir Ian Diamond, head of the Office for National Statistics, estimated there were 20,000 new cases a day in the UK – at least three times as many new cases as recorded by official statistics – according to the Times newspaper. The day before the Sunday Times had reported the government target was 4,000 new cases a day. We still seem a long way off from this – on 5 June the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University estimated 17,000 new cases a day in England alone.

Citing the 20,000 figure, on 7 May John Edmunds, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, explained that contact tracing was “probably impossible at the moment”.

This doesn’t bode well in light of the Guardian report on 4 June: “the NHS coronavirus test-and-trace system designed to prevent a second deadly wave is not expected to work at full speed until September or October”.

Two days later the Independent highlighted the regional reproduction rate of the virus: “R is thought to be 1.01 in the northwest and 1 in the southwest, in results shown by a tool created by Public Health England (PHE) and Cambridge University. In only one region — the northeast and Yorkshire — was it below 0.9, the data suggested.” The R number is the number of people each infected person, on average, passes the virus onto. Lower than one means the pandemic is declining, higher than one means cases increase exponentially.

An 11 May British Medical Journal blog provides important context. “The Rt [the R number] in Wuhan at this stage of lockdown was below 0.2”, explained KK Cheng, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care at University of Birmingham, and Wenjie Gong, Associate Professor at the Xiangya School of Public Health at Central South University in China.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on 10 May also highlighted how the British left has largely been MIA on coronavirus.

Keir Starmer may be playing smart politics – he and the party are enjoying rising poll ratings – but arguably Labour has not been an effective opposition when it comes to taking strong positions on key facets of the crisis. Instead there is an increasing sense the Labour leader is usually one step behind public opinion, rather than out in front, leading and shaping it. This was well illustrated in April when Andrew Marr suggested to Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds her party was being “too gentle” on the government. With Dodds equivocating on the question of loosening the lockdown when she was interviewed again by Marr on 31 May, the BBC pussy cat quoted Starmer’s recent statement: “We support the gradual easing of restrictions on lockdown” though “It’s got to be safe”. Still Dodds was unable to give a clear answer, to which Marr responded: “You haven’t come off the fence and said whether you are in favour of the unlocking, or not in favour of the unlocking”.

More broadly, any influence the public has had on the government during the crisis has happened without a national grassroots campaign leading educating, organising and energising public opinion. Where is the Occupy movement for the virus? The new Stop the War Coalition? The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the crisis?

A senior Tory MP told the Guardian in early April they were “frankly amazed” the Prime Minister’s popularity was holding up. “The death toll will become totemic”, they suggested. “If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

With the official death toll now over 40,000 and Johnson’s personal ratings plummeting, this fear of the public means there is an opportunity for the left to have a real impact on government policy, the official opposition and the wider national debate during the biggest national crisis in a generation. The $64,000 question is: will the British left rise to the challenge?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.