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Tue 20 October 2020
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With the Prime Minister admitting that new restrictions could last for six months, Mike Buckley explores why the UK is in such a bad position compared to other countries in Europe

Boris Johnson would have us believe that a second Coronavirus wave was “absolutely inevitable”.

“Inevitability” absolves him of responsibility – and if there is one skill to which Johnson has applied himself it is the avoidance of responsibility. But the facts tell a different story.

If a second wave was inevitable then comparable countries such as Germany and Italy would have seen similar increases in infections. But their rates remain at the same low levels seen since the beginning of Summer.

The truth is that Johnson only has himself to blame for the UK’s rising infection rate. The fact that other countries, including Spain and France, have made similar mistakes and themselves face rising infections and hospitalisations does nothing to change the fact that the UK’s plight is the direct result of decisions made by Johnson and his ministers. 

The Prime Minister has wasted the time afforded to him by the first lockdown and subsequent low infection levels. He was warned repeatedly by medical professionals and scientific advisors that September would present new challenges. The return of schools and universities, combined with the arrival of colder weather and hence more time spent inside where the virus spreads more easily, mean that infections rising was all but certain in the absence of mitigating measures, key among them a viable test and trace system.

It was also made more likely by the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, now proven to have been a driver of new infections, and by Johnson’s call to office workers to return to their desks and commutes as recently as three weeks ago

Johnson now has to live with the consequences of his actions. He has to impose what are likely to be draconian restrictions on the whole country, which could last for up to six months. The personal cost of this will be difficult – public appetite for a return to the lockdown of the spring is precisely zero – but the economic, health and social costs will be huge. 


Test and Trace Vital

The economy has already suffered its worst downturn for decades. Projected job losses were already eye-wateringly high. We can now expect more jobs to be lost, and more businesses to close, and all this as we enter the final straight before a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit and all its toxic implications for the economy, society and national politics. 

The vulnerable and isolated will again face new challenges and loneliness. Care home residents will again be cut off from friends and family. And, unless the NHS is given more resources, the already long queues of delayed operations and procedures will grow ever longer, costing more lives and leaving more people in pain and anxiety.

Choices could have be made to prevent this outcome. Lockdowns do not end a virus or its spread, they merely press pause to give authorities time to put longer-term measures in place. The Government wasted the time afforded by the first lockdown and the relatively benign Summer – time when it should have been learning from, and replicating, best practice.

A better Government would have used the time to develop a functioning test and trace system and the key objective over lockdown and the Summer should have been to carry out mass testing and tracing in order to aggressively seek out and eliminate community transmission of the Coronavirus. Some say that no country in the world has built a successful test and trace system, but the governments of ChinaTaiwanVietnamNew Zealand and South Korea have done just that. Their populations and economies are reaping the rewards of few COVID-19 cases and relatively light restrictions. 

Despite everything it is not too late.

The Government could still invest in a viable test and trace system that returns results within 24 hours. It could provide accommodation such as hotels for people who test positive so that they do not have to isolate with family members at home. They could screen arrivals into the UK – which China was doing at its own airports back in March – to prevent new infections arriving from outside the country. 

The Government also needs a long-term economic strategy. Its hope that things could return to a relative normality in the short-term has been dashed and it now needs to support workers and businesses for at least the medium-term, including at-risk sectors and the three million people so far excluded from Government support schemes.

It is easy to despair at a Government so resistant to learning from others and so incapable of creating the systems and structures required to get through this crisis with a minimum loss of life and economic disruption.

But despair won’t help. Instead, we need to redouble our efforts to encourage it to act where it has failed.

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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