Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
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