Priorities to curb the virus

Submitted by AWL on 21 October, 2020 - 12:23 Author: Editorial
Coronavirus cases

Because the Tories bungled and wasted the summer virus-lull, Britain is heading for new lockdowns.

Solidarity defers to majority scientific opinion that some sort of new lockdowns will be needed.

We insist, too, that sustainable control of virus-spread, and escape from having both infections and lockdowns hit the worst-off hardest, requires social measures to underpin greater social solidarity.

It’s not impossible. Some countries, and not just those with the advantage of being remote islands, have kept fairly low death rates (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany). If we develop measures to keep infections from exploding in the coming months, then we can reasonably hope for help from a vaccine next year, and have a basis for a sustainable regime if no vaccine succeeds.

The social underpinning we need includes:

• Full isolation pay for all. Continued furlough pay.

• Publicly-provided alternative housing for those quarantining, and for those in overcrowding

• Bring elderly care into the public sector, with staff on union-agreed public-sector pay and conditions

• Expand the NHS, give NHS workers the 15% pay rise they demand, take NHS logistics in-house and requisition supply industries and private hospitals

• Public-health test-and-trace, in place of the Tories’ Serco mess

• Increase funding for schools. Workers’ control of workplace safety.

We know that the virus is transmitted from person to person, and mostly through the air rather than via surfaces. We know that it transmits more in closed and crowded and ill-ventilated spaces, and when individuals are talking to each other.

Thus lockdowns, forcibly reducing social contact, are likely to work to some extent. The general idea has been known since the Middle Ages.

Exactly how the early-2020 lockdowns worked, and which parts of them worked most, nobody knows.

Abrupt lockdown-easing led to renewed surges of infection from May in Israel and Iran. When the lockdowns were eased more cautiously in Europe, from April, reopening shops, factories, construction sites, and schools didn’t observably pause or slow established downward trends of infections. Some factories, notably in meat-processing, have been big transmission sites, but many of those were open during lockdown too.

The reopening of cafés, pubs, and tourist trade later in the summer was followed by a new rise of infections. Scientists have long predicted that infections will probably get worse as winter sets in, people spend more time indoors, and a new flu season compounds problems.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has picked up the idea of a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, mooted in mid-September and written up recently by scientist Matt Keeling.

Quick-fix

Keeling and his co-authors do not say that a “circuit-breaker” would be a sufficient “techie” quick fix to the social problems. Their paper is a mathematical study of infection curves on the assumption that the “circuit-breaker” lockdown dampens infections like (best guesses of what) early-2020 lockdowns did. It is explicit that its argument depends on “good compliance with the measures across all… sections of society”, “the associated societal harms” being minimised, and the hoped-for break being used to establish sustainable measures for afterwards.

Lockdowns have usually taken at least three weeks to get infection figures even starting to drop. Israel’s infection rate turned down only a couple of weeks after a full second lockdown was introduced (but that lockdown is being eased only now, after a month’s duration). Spain’s infection rate plateaued for four weeks with only scrappy new restrictions, at least until another spike on 19 October. Other European countries, France, the Netherlands, etc. have cases rising faster than the UK.

So we don’t know. But it is probable that a “circuit-breaker” will in fact last more than two weeks, and have only moderate effect.

The Tories’ version of test-and-trace, with its maze of profiteering subcontractors, has increased Serco’s profits a third above 2019’s, and brought (so the official scientists confirm) only “marginal” health benefit. For weeks now, Solidarity has been hammering away at the fact, which we dug out of the small print of an official report dated 31 August, that fewer than 20% of people self-isolate properly after testing positive for the virus.

High numbers of total tests are useless unless they lead to better tracing of contacts (both “forwards”, and “backwards” to identify clusters or hubs of transmission) and efficient quarantining facilitated by social measures. Studies of South Korea, for example, suggest that good test-and-trace is useful, but secondary to a good covid-distancing and quarantining regime.

In spring Britain’s lockdown was largely self-enforced by all of us, unlike in Spain and France, in each of which police imposed about a million fines. Social contact in all age groups, in Britain, has been drifting upwards steadily since May.

Effect

The effect of lockdowns depends not just on official “closings-down” but also on voluntary effort for a reduction in “private” possibly-infectious contact (socialising in households, after work and in work breaks, etc.) which no police effort short of the Wuhan ultra-lockdown (23 January to 8 April) by China’s police state could enforce.

We need social solidarity. We need a labour-movement effort to impose social measures on the Tories, and to win rules that are not just makeshift guesses by a government wanting to show it is “doing something”. They must be part of an effort, fallible but real, by us all, to look after each other and help the worst-off, those hit hardest by infection risks and those hit hardest by lockdowns.

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