Coronavirus in capitalist Britain

People queue for the supermarket

The British government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is ideologically committed to protecting the profits and wealth of the capitalist class at the expense of public health regardless of the human cost. The government has refused to involve the public sector in its response to the coronavirus pandemic to any significant degree. It has focused on private sector provision of services, which has abjectly failed to deliver on testing, contact tracing or personal protective equipment (PPE). As a result, on 4 January 2021 the UK went into a third national lockdown. Over 100,000 people have now died from Covid-19 and the UK has the highest rate of excess deaths among advanced capitalist countries since March 2020. On 15 December 2020, there were 18,187 people in hospital with Covid-19; a month later, on 16 January 2021, there were 39,125 – nearly double the numbers at the peak of the first wave in April 2020. The virus is now out of control and has spread rapidly across the country, with the NHS and its staff overwhelmed. As we go to press at the end of January, there are still over 37,000 hospitalised Covid-19 patients. CHARLES CHINWEIZU reports.

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, Britain has been behind the curve, reacting to periods of crisis with last minute lockdowns, followed by premature relaxations of restrictions to ‘protect the economy’. Johnson has ignored scientific advice to implement basic public health measures, but flirted with the ‘herd immunity’ fans and lockdown sceptics who want the virus to run rampant, and force workers back to work to protect capitalist profits. He has failed to implement a coherent strategy to reduce community transmission and bring infections down to zero, and is yet again reaching for technological magic solutions, with all hope now resting solely on vaccination – another recipe for disaster.

A major simulation drill Cygnus Exercise in October 2016, on how best to prepare for an influenza pandemic similar to the current Covid-19 outbreak, revealed shortages of ventilators and PPE. It showed Britain’s plans, policies, and capability were insufficient to cope with a severe pandemic. No action followed. In early March 2020, Johnson ignored advice to impose a national lockdown and restrict mass gatherings. 41,501 people died in the first wave between 28 February and 31 August 2020. If the 23 March 2020 lockdown had been implemented just two weeks earlier, 90% of these deaths would have been prevented. Even one week would have prevented half these deaths.

Third lockdown

The lockdown in England was announced after exponential growth in cases, hospitalisations and deaths. On 2 December 2020, when the second lockdown was prematurely lifted, the positive Covid-19 case rate was 152 cases per 100,000 people; this had nearly quadrupled to 594 per 100,000 by 3 January 2021. An average 16,000 cases per day had grown to 60,000 by early January. There were on average 4,100 new coronavirus hospital admissions every day on 12 January, compared to 1,327 on 5 November 2020. No part of the country is free of coronavirus, but the worst affected areas were in southern England, especially London. Random testing by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Infection Survey, which is not dependent on people with symptoms coming forward, shows that by 2 January 2021 one in 50 people in England (1.1 million people) were infected with coronavirus, compared to 645,800 people on 18 December 2020. This figure did not include those in care homes and hospitals. Around 3.56% of Londoners had the virus – around 1 in 30 people. 800 people were admitted daily to London hospitals alone in early January, and over 1,000 people were dying every day from Covid-19. 

A shell-shocked Boris Johnson was forced to implement the lockdown and close schools on 4 January, having said only a day earlier that schools were safe. In December 2020, schools minister Nick Gibb had threatened to use Section 17 of the Coronavirus Act to keep open schools that wanted to close a few days earlier in the run-up to Christmas. Despite the prevalence of the new, more contagious, coronavirus variant, the restrictions of the third lockdown are looser than those in the first, with expanded definitions of ‘critical workers’, meaning busier schools; trades people, nurseries and religious services are permitted to continue, all of which increase inter-household contact and feed into busier public transport. In any case, millions of working class people have no choice but to work as they cannot afford to simply stay home, regardless of the mixed-messaging of the lockdown. Due to pressure from the airline industry, it took 10 months for the government on 15 January 2021 to implement testing and quarantining at ports for travellers.

Ignoring scientific advice

The entire preventable second wave became inevitable once the national restrictions were lifted prematurely on 4 July 2020, to be followed by the introduction of the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme in August 2020, and the easing of travel restrictions and quarantining, which allowed people to take holidays to Covid-transmission hotspots such as Spain and Italy, with little or no testing, all contrary to scientific advice. A 9 December study by the COG-UK Consortium of the genomic history of Covid-19 in Scotland showed it was ‘all but eliminated’ by the March lockdown, but re-imported by summer holiday travel to Europe and England.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the government has in practice pursued a policy of building up ‘herd immunity’ either through infection or vaccination, rather than trying to reduce viral transmissions to zero, a feat achieved in Cuba, several Asian countries and New Zealand. On 13 March 2020, the chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said, ‘our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely’, and that ‘communities will become immune to it and that’s going to be an important part of controlling this longer term…about 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity.’ On 14 March 2020, a group of 229 scientists at UK universities criticised this approach in an open letter and called for ‘additional and more restrictive social distancing measures [to] be taken immediately.’ They were ignored.

On 21 September 2020, advice from the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to immediately impose a 14-day national ‘circuit breaker’ or face a ‘very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences’ was also ignored. Instead, Johnson held a Zoom meeting on 20 September, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Professor Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, along with other ‘herd immunity’ crackpots, Carl Heneghan from Oxford University and epidemiologist Dr Anders Tegnell, responsible for Sweden’s catastrophic response to the pandemic. Their advice – not to implement a national lockdown – was heeded, and on 14 October, Johnson introduced a three-tiered system of local Covid Alert Levels in England. Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, conceded that the highest level, Tier 3 restrictions, would not be enough to bring the outbreak under control. The ‘herd immunity’ crackpots’ advice cost an extra 1.3 million infections. 

Johnson was also warned that relaxing the tiered restrictions after lifting the second lockdown to allow ‘Christmas bubbles’ from 23-27 December would lead to disaster. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, urged ‘extreme caution’ before putting any region into a lower tier as ‘relaxing the restrictions will trigger a third wave’. Johnson was also asked to move London, Essex, Kent and Lincolnshire into the highest Tier 3 Covid alert level. A 15 December 2020 BMJ and HSJ joint editorial warned that ‘current restrictions [were] failing to control the virus’ and ‘planned relaxation of restrictions over Christmas will boost infections’ and was ‘a blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’. They were all ignored.

A belated revision of the rules on 19 December still allowed ‘household mixing’ for three households in England and Scotland (two households in Wales) on Christmas Day itself. 17 million people in southern and eastern England were put under newly created Tier 4 restrictions where Christmas mixing was banned, but elsewhere household mixing went ahead. The current death tolls are the direct result of the British government pushing ahead with its Christmas relaxations against the advice of experts.

New strain

In September 2020, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, emerged in Kent in southeast England. This B117 strain is 50-70% more transmissible and increases the reproduction number R by 0.4-0.7. This variant is becoming the dominant strain nationwide, accounting for 60% of all infections. The first lockdown only reduced the R for the previous strain to 0.6, meaning that another March-May 2020 lockdown would not be enough to bring R below 1.0, and avoid exponential growth of infections. The very existence of this new variant, known before Christmas on 14 December 2020, is the direct result of Britain allowing the coronavirus to spread unchecked: the greater the number of people who are infected, the more chance a virus has to evolve. With over three million people infected, there are many more opportunities for the virus to mutate.

However, the current situation cannot be blamed entirely on the new variant, as infections, hospitalisations and deaths had been rising since September 2020. The time bought by lockdowns was not used to implement an adequate find, test, trace, isolate and support system. Despite huge expenditure, the privatised ‘NHS Test and Trace’ was only turning around 38% of tests within 24 hours in November 2020, and only 60% of close contacts were being reached. Further, the proportion of time that call centre handlers actively worked during their paid hours was just 1%, according to the National Audit Office. The service’s head, Dido Harding, reports directly to the prime minister and the cabinet secretary, bypassing the Department of Health and Social Care ministers. 

When mass testing was piloted across Liverpool in November 2020, much was made of the government’s £500 self-isolation mandatory Test and Trace Support Payment – but 80% of people who applied for it were refused. If people are not financially supported to isolate when they are infected, testing and contact tracing are pointless. Yet, as we go to press, the government is only now thinking about such support although the third lockdown has been in force for three weeks. Surveys shows that people are prepared to isolate if they can; indeed the vast majority agree that the lockdown is insufficiently stringent. The government’s refusal to give financial support for isolation has cost lives – yet it has handed out thousands of contracts worth at least £9bn to procure PPE, vaccines and other critical supplies to companies either run by cronies of the Conservative Party or with no prior experience of public health.

Vaccination not a panacea

The government plans to vaccinate 31 million people by Easter 2021. This will reduce deaths and hospitalisations, but not infections or ICU admissions which will continue until viral transmission is brought under control. Vaccination cannot be the strategy: vaccinating during periods of high transmission puts evolutionary pressure on the virus to mutate to ‘escape’ the vaccine. In addition, there are interruptions to vaccine supplies, and a conflict is brewing between Britain and the EU about AstraZeneca and Pfizer contracts which could lead to the imposition of export controls. Allowing community transmission will create, and has already created more variants in other countries where there are high levels of transmission. British variant B117 has now been found in at least 60 countries. Importing or exporting a variant that even just partially escapes the vaccines puts us back to square one. There is no alternative to virus suppression, but capitalism cannot achieve this: its drive for profits is a threat to all of humanity. We need to fight not just for a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy but for a socialist response.