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The Vaccine is Not Enough: We Need a Zero Covid Strategy

The UK now has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world. Boris Johnson's strategy has failed, and the vaccine isn't a silver bullet – we need a plan for Zero Covid that puts lives and livelihoods first.

By the time you read this, Britain will have passed 100,000 Covid deaths. We were told at one stage that 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome.’ It never would have been – but what we now have is an almost entirely avoidable human catastrophe caused by a failed state response.

Tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if the British state had simply done what many other countries did and followed a Zero Covid policy.  One shocking comparison stands out for me in highlighting the sheer scale of the needless loss of life: in the first 14 days of 2021 alone, there were 12,503 Covid deaths in the UK. That is significantly more than the 7,200 combined death toll of all the countries following a Zero Covid plan throughout the entire pandemic. In other words, the UK has had more deaths in two weeks than China, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam have had put together over the last 12 months, despite these countries having a combined population 25 times bigger than the UK.

It’s been obvious for months that a Zero Covid strategy is the way forward. New Zealand admits to following the same model as the UK at one stage before seeing the looming dangers, dropping it, and adopting the model followed by East Asian countries. New Zealand’s tiny death toll of 25 was the result. That change of strategy is needed here too. We on the Left need to force this change: every step towards a Zero Covid strategy will save lives and limit the economic damage. It is still worth fighting for – even at this stage.

More Months of Tory Failure

The Tory government has a very different strategy. Its plan now is to treat the vaccine as the silver bullet. By mid-February, it hopes to vaccinate the 15 million people at greatest risk of dying from Covid, and then open up the economy again – just as it did last summer. They are increasingly open about this and are being lobbied by the right-wing Tory MPs in the Covid Recovery Group.

Let’s be clear: the vaccines are a wonderful achievement and offer a real ray of hope. They are a key weapon in the battle against Covid, but they can’t be the only one.

We still don’t know if—and to what degree—the vaccines prevent transmission, or how long immunity lasts. In the best-case scenario, it will be many months before everyone has had a vaccine – perhaps not until the end of this year. Even then, children won’t have had it.

So if not checked, the virus will continue to spiral out of control and millions more people could be infected. In that context, the virus could mutate again and again, increasing the likelihood of a nightmare scenario in which it creates a variant immune to the vaccine.

At the very least, huge numbers of people will still get ill (and many will be left with the debilitating Long Covid). Large numbers will require intensive hospital care. Already a Covid patient is admitted to hospital every 30 seconds. Senior NHS figures are warning that critical care wards could run out of beds across England in the coming days, despite the 50 percent increase in capacity put in place over recent months.

The vaccine will not immediately address this. Three-quarters of all hospital patients in intensive care at present are under 70 years old, and so not in the priority vaccine groups. The NHS simply won’t be able to cope with this ongoing level of hospitalisation into the future. Already there are record numbers waiting for other hospital treatment. With hospitals full and staff and resources redeployed from other areas, the impact on those who can’t access hospital for other life-saving treatments, such as for cancer, will be devastating.

Without the right policy alongside the vaccine, there will be many more months of deaths, suffering, and economic pain. We need an alternative strategy that decisively breaks with the discredited Tory idea of balancing lives and the economy, and instead adopts a Zero Covid plan.

How Zero Covid Succeeded

Zero Covid is a maximum suppression strategy that focuses on effectively eliminating the virus, rather than trying to manage it at some so-called ‘acceptable level’, as the UK has done. It builds on the lessons learned by the Asian nations after the experiences with the deadly SARS disease at the turn of the century. Where Zero Covid has been pursued, there are now very few deaths.  Life is returning to something much more normal. Over the weekend, 20,000 people safely attended a music festival in New Zealand. In China, shopping centres and nightclubs are full. And their economies are growing rapidly whilst the UK faces an unprecedented downturn.

What’s so frustrating is that it could have been us. Britain had cases down to one per 100,000 people in the early summer, after the first lockdown. We were on track to being able to drive it down further and effectively eliminate it. Then the government told people to go out and spend, to get back to work, and made it a patriotic duty to fill the pubs and sent kids back to school without carrying out the safety measures school staff rightly demanded.

This failure to pursue a Zero Covid plan goes well beyond Tory incompetence. It’s rooted in the domination of neoliberalism at the heart of the British state, entrenched over the past four decades. When the state needs to act in a crisis, it turns first to failing corporate giants whose role is profit maximisation, not the social good. This is the result of the ideological thinking that dominates the British capitalist class, as well as the cronyism of a self-serving elite, but it also reflects a reality of a state hollowed out by decades of privatisation and cuts. The refusal to go for Zero Covid is also rooted in a fear that its policy solutions would set a dangerous precedent with a greater role for the state in serving the people, rather than being there to bail out capitalist interests.

Zero Covid isn’t a socialist solution per se – as can be seen by the diversity of the nations that have employed it. But it is certainly a rejection of neoliberal cornerstones, and it draws on core concepts that socialists support. It relies on a socialised public health approach, a model of state financial support that means people are not forced to go to work even when ill; it subordinates private interests to the public good; and it promotes concepts of community support that tear up Thatcher’s claim that there is ‘no such thing as society’.

The Demands We Must Fight For

What demands does the Left need to be making to advance this strategy in the UK?

Zero Covid seeks to eliminate the virus. It does so by driving cases down to low enough levels. We then use test, trace, isolate and, crucially, support, to ensure those with the virus are not infecting the rest of the community.

So the first demand is to lockdown properly. Lockdowns represent a failure to have the virus under control – but once it’s out of control, they’re needed. If you are going to do it, then do it properly: not with the half measures we currently have.

Many more people are having to travel during this lockdown than the one last March. Despite a Tory PR campaign to blame the public, economics is the real reason.  For some, that’s because workplaces that clearly aren’t truly essential remain open. For others, that’s because workers who want to work from home are being told to go into their workplaces. Others simply can’t afford to stay at home after nearly a year with reduced incomes, however much politicians implore them to.

So we need a proper lockdown, and one that lasts as long as it takes to get cases down – not just a few more weeks, as the government intends. But we also need the government to give people the financial support they need to ‘stay at home’ through lockdown. One key demand should be that all non-essential workers who can’t work from home should be furloughed on full pay. We also need urgent financial help for the millions of self-employed people who have never had any support, or are on the brink of ruin, and so still have to go out to work.

A proper lockdown also means nurseries should be shut on the same basis as schools. We also need a borders strategy that requires incoming passengers to stay in monitored locations such as hotels while they quarantine until a test shows they are safe.

But permanent lockdown isn’t a solution – so what else do we need to stop us going in and out of lockdowns?

The Fight for Financial Support

Obviously, any successful strategy needs testing and tracing to work. With many hundreds of thousands of cases per week at the moment, contact tracing is clearly not possible, and lockdown acts as an alternative. But tracing will be needed once cases are at more manageable levels, and the lockdown period needs to be used to fix the evident problems in the scheme. So we need to keep pushing to kick out Serco and the other privateers – and to invest in the NHS, especially local public health teams, as the alternative.

But testing isn’t the goal in and of itself. The goal is to get infected people to isolate, and we know many can’t afford to do so without proper financial support.  The government’s £500 payment to people isolating is too little and goes too far too few.  New data showed that in Yorkshire 61 percent of applicants are denied even this support, a picture repeated across the country. That’s why I’ve been organising a group of MPs to call for sick pay at real wage levels for everyone who needs it, a call shared by the TUC. Given the pathetic levels of UK sick pay compared to the rest of Europe, this is a change that should become permanent.

We also need to fight for other types of support. For example, there are thousands of empty hotels: we should make them available to those struggling to isolate because of cramped housing, as some Zero Covid countries have done.

And community support should be mobilised, drawing on the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who signed up in the spring. These could get the food shopping, medicine and other essentials in for those who are isolating and have no other support.

While schools rightly remain closed, the state should instruct tech companies to provide free internet to all families (in lieu of a permanent free broadband policy), and the government must deliver the laptops needed so every child can study online – a policy that should also be kept into the future, given the changing nature of education. Schools should only reopen when it’s safe to do so, and we need to be backing the NEU in their fight to make them safe. That means a rota system in place for schools with teaching online and offline, and a push for smaller class sizes by rehiring teachers and using community spaces as classrooms. Likewise,  for public safety, university campuses should remain shut for this academic year with teaching mainly online, fees scrapped, and students fully reimbursed for their the costs of accommodation they are not living in.

The Tories’ claim of striking a balance between the economy and saving lives has been proven to be a complete lie, causing untold damage on both fronts. There is a proven alternative, but that will only be won by determined campaigning, including from the Left, for the correct strategy and demands. The government has been forced into repeated U-turns during this crisis, most recently by the excellent leadership of the National Education Union. More concessions can be won by our movement – and every step we win towards a Zero Covid strategy will save lives and livelihoods. For our movement, nothing is more important.