Boris Johnson’s leadership throughout this crisis has been reckless, we need to pursue a ‘zero Covid’ strategy
[A zero-Covid strategy] would mean ensuring that there is proper financial support such as furlough to support workers and business impacted by any lockdowns, writes Richard Burgon MP. | PA Images
A ‘Zero Covid’ strategy would avoid the cycle of lockdowns by instead locking down cases and contacts instead of the whole country. If other countries can do it, there is no reason why we can’t too.
Whatever good faith there was in Boris Johnson’s ability to handle Coronavirus has drained away in recent weeks. A sense of crisis has swept the nation as people couldn’t get tests, thousands of cases were not reported and contacts not even traced.
It’s clear that Johnson’s strategy is a busted flush. But there is a real danger that whatever comes next will be even worse. Rishi Sunak’s call for people “to live with the virus without fear” is barely distinguishable from Trump’s message of "Don't be afraid of Covid. Don't let it dominate your life."
Without a clear alternative, it is perfectly possible - and no doubt desired by those advocating herd immunity at the start of this crisis - that people feel that nothing more can be done and we get swamped by a second wave. We know who will pay the price: low paid workers, those in crowded houses, and black and ethnic minority communities.
But there is a better way forward. Coronavirus can be driven to very low levels and life return to some semblance of normality with a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy. Such an approach seeks to effectively eliminate the virus and is the strategy advocated by Independent Sage.
Last week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country has eliminated local transmission of Coronavirus. That follows no new cases for 10 days in Auckland, its largest city, after a cluster of 179 cases there in August ended a 102-day run without any cases at all among New Zealand’s 5m population.
But it’s not just New Zealand. During the first half of China’s current “Golden Week” holiday an estimated 425 million trips were made generating billions in revenue. In Wuhan, once the epicentre of the virus, life has returned to normal with scenes of packed nightclubs and waterparks.
Figures show what a difference such a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy could make here. In the 14 days to 9 October, Vietnam had 31 Coronavirus cases, New Zealand 37, Thailand 109, Singapore 195 cases, Australia 223 cases and China including Hong Kong and Macau had 304 cases. The UK had 145,000 cases.
These Asian-Pacific countries have very many differences but all have learnt from the 2003 SARS outbreak and have implemented a public health approach to suppress the virus. It is frankly reckless that our government isn’t doing the same.
A sustained economic recovery requires us to get the virus under control
Instead, there has been a push to prioritise the economy over lives. Sunak has non-too subtly talked of the “awful trade-offs” between health and employment and warned “we must bear all those costs in mind”.
That’s a totally false choice designed to cover up Tory failings on both. The UK has suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls and greatest economic blows of any major economy. A sustained economic recovery requires us to get the virus under control.
‘Zero Covid’ wouldn't falsely counter pose saving lives with saving the economy. It would protect both by driving down the virus to low levels as the basis for kick-starting the economy. Instead of going from one crisis to another, businesses will then be able to plan ahead and invest, rather than struggling to cover their costs and laying off workers.
So what would a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy look like in practice?
Firstly, as Labour and many others are advocating, it would mean fixing the test and trace system. That means using the expertise of local NHS and public health teams and kicking out the private sector outsourcers whose involvement seems to do nothing more than highlight the Tories’ obsession of always turning to the private sector, whatever the cost.
But sorting out ‘test and trace’ isn’t enough. It needs to lead to people actually isolating and so far the support to help people to do so has been woefully lacking.
A real support package would include sick-pay at real living wage levels for those needing to self-isolate. It may mean help on getting food and the basics in, psychological support to those struggling with self-isolation and extra help to those with caring responsibilities. It could involve offering free hotel rooms, as South Korea and Taiwan has done, to people who can’t isolate as they live in cramped houses.
It would mean ensuring that there is proper financial support such as furlough to support workers and business impacted by any lockdowns.
Universities teaching would move largely online given that the spike in large cities is closely linked to students moving to campuses. In schools it would mean creating smaller class sizes by hiring community spaces and re-recruiting qualified teachers willing to return to the sector.
A ‘Zero Covid’ strategy may well allow us to avoid the cycle of lockdowns by instead locking down cases and contacts instead of the whole country.
None of this is rocket science. What it requires is political leadership. So far in our country that has been missing. But other countries have shown the way. If they can do it, there is no reason why we can’t too. But it needs an urgent change of strategy.
Richard Burgon is the Labour MP for Leeds East.