There have been many grim statistics throughout the Covid pandemic but today we can celebrate a positive one: the news that the number of first vaccinations in Britain will shortly pass the 15m mark. This is a success for public funding, organisation and accountability – not just the production of the vaccines, but the roll-out of the injections under the aegis of the NHS. It stands in sharp contrast to the failures of the big business-run ‘Test and Trace’ system and the government’s lack of preparation for dealing with the pandemic. Indeed, Professor Sarah Gilbert, who led the team developing the Oxford jab, is quoted in today’s Observer as saying that Britain failed to respond to warnings about potential new viruses, took too long to recognise that Covid-19 was spread through the air, and was too slow in setting up the vaccine manufacturing centre in Oxfordshire.
As a result of the latest lock-down, the number of daily new cases has fallen from a 7-day average of about 60,000 at the peak on January 9 to about 14,000 yesterday. It is now well below the smaller November peak, although still far too high. The average number of daily deaths has also fallen from 1240 at the January peak to 688 now; we can be thankful at that, but let us not forget that every one of the nearly 117,000 Covid deaths –the majority disabled people – is a tragedy, and could have been avoided if the government had adopted World Health Organisation guidelines of Find – Test – Trace – Isolate – Support.
Hamstrung by its adherence to capitalist market economics, the Labour opposition has been ineffectual, letting the government off the hook. And so, despite the 117,000 deaths, the 300,000 people suffering long-Covid, the 224,000 people on hospital waiting lists of over a year, the drop in GDP of nearly 10% in 2020 and the hardship faced by the rising number of those who have lost their jobs, the government has been able to get a boost from the vaccine success. According to an opinion poll, also in today’s Observer, the Tories have opened up a 5-point lead over Labour. The same poll shows that 39% of people think the government is responding proportionately to the crisis, compared with 38% who think it is under-reacting; a month ago, the figures were 30% to 51%.
We need a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy, but the government has ruled it out. Today’s papers report that, next week, Johnson will announce plans to start lifting the lockdown. The Sunday Times, which quotes unnamed 10 Downing Street sources, says that all schoolchildren will return on March 8 – despite the fact that ministers know this will raise the R number. Adults will then be able to sit outdoors with one friend, for a coffee or on a park bench. At the end of March, outdoor sports for two people from different households – such as golf and tennis – will resume. Thereafter, further lifting of the lockdown will depend on progress of the virus and vaccination programme. Ministers have drawn up 4 scenarios for reopening restaurants and pubs:
- ‘superfast’: early May, once all the over-50s have been vaccinated.
- the Spring Bank Holiday, 31 May.
- by August.
The dates will move around depending on what the pandemic is doing.
Each of these is fraught with danger, because we are only dealing with first vaccinations at the moment, we don’t know whether even the second will stop transmission (in fact, probably not), nor do we know the degree of protection which the vaccines will have against new variants. There is also a degree of vaccine nationalism in the roll-out process; but it is clear that we won’t be protected until everyone in the world – in poor countries in particular – is protected.
Of course, the longer the hospitality industry in Britain remains closed, the more people will lose their jobs, but that is largely because the government has diluted the furlough scheme and even now is not prepared to commit to extending it. The IPPR estimates that up to 9m jobs and 600,000 firms could be at risk if the scheme is not extended beyond April 30. Limiting the outlay on furlough is therefore probably one of the reasons behind the government’s plans to open up bars and restaurants. The extension till just the end of April of the ban on tenants’ evictions is part of this overall perspective.
As Bill Greenshields said at the EC meeting on 30 January, the Party is facing great challenges in many ways – opportunities and great dangers. The roll-out of the vaccine shows the inability of capitalism to manage it: apparently there is only chaos and conflict among the big pharmaceutical companies and the countries supporting them. In fact Big Pharma is making huge profits: just this week campaigners demanded that Astrazeneca justify its ‘unequal’ vaccine pricing after it revealed that annual profits have more than doubled: South Africa and Uganda are paying respectively £3.80 and £5.07 per Covid vaccine dose, while the EU is paying only £1.56.
This is state monopoly capitalism (SMC). The idea of collective roll-out is anathema, and such ideas characterise all government policies. ‘Build back better’ has the objective of a big transfer of government money to the monopolies under the cover of a recovery programme. The failure of social-democracy in the Labour Party and the TUC to identify SMC needs to be brought out.
There is quite a low level of working class struggle at the moment, but it is growing: BA staff, British Gas, Rolls Royce Barnoldswick, the NEU. We need to popularise the Strike Map UK initiative.
We have to put flesh on the bones of the anti-monopoly alliance. All Party Commissions, Advisories, Districts and Nations need to report to the EC on
- the analysis of SMC in their sector/area
- how to organise and offer leadership
- proposals for practical steps in building the anti-monopoly alliance.
At the EC, John Foster emphasised that we need not only to know how people experience SMC, but to analyse it. There are now major fractures within it: the role of finance trusts from outside Britain is now far more dominant.
Johnson is centralising power through infrastructure projects and the free ports policy. Where is the weakest point that we can attack this? At the level of regions and nations, and the demand for democratic powers locally. Campaigners in Scotland and Wales are now linking up with some in the English regions, such as Jamie Driscoll. If we don’t pick this up, the SNP will make ground on the national question.
This is where our Party’s policy of progressive federalism can play a key role, though perhaps under a different name. Rob Griffiths reported that Labour Party figures in Wales have been talking about radical federalism, and indeed there have been several articles on this topic in the Morning Star recently.
The EC already agreed on the need to study the North West TUC’s Aims for a Post-Pandemic Workers’ Consensus and the STUC’s A People’s Recovery. There will be the opportunity to build on these ideas, and on radical/progressive federalism, in the Zoom conference in March being organised by Tyne & Wear CATUC, ‘Organising for Recovery after the Pandemic’. Tyne & Wear CATUC has also agreed to approach small business organisations with a view to campaigning going forward – an essential building block of the anti-monopoly alliance.
We have to be prepared for attempts by the state to undermine us. Collective discipline and political education are essential.