Here’s the chilling, remarkable thing that should be inscribed on everyone’s minds: there is no plan. This week, I asked the government’s Cabinet Office three simple questions. What are the objectives of the current lockdown? What are the criteria for deciding when it should be lifted? What are the criteria for imposing other restrictions following this lockdown? It had no answers.
All it could offer was a paragraph of waffle from the prime minister’s latest press conference, in which he appeared to suggest that he might relax some measures when the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated.
A government with any level of competence would have explained from the outset where we need to be before it lifts this lockdown. It might have stated what the R number should be; what the number of positive cases should be; how great a reduction in Covid hospital patient numbers there should be. It would have committed not to end the lockdown until such conditions have been met.
It would also have published a plan for tightening restrictions if conditions worsen, and its criteria for graded restrictions when lockdown ends. But no such statements have been published. We’ve had 11 months of this, and the government is still flying blind.
Without clear objectives, without a plan, we are likely to remain trapped in a perpetual cycle of emergency followed by suppression, followed by relaxation, followed by emergency. Boris Johnson will continue to chase short-term popularity by lifting restrictions as soon as he thinks he can; the government, constantly surprised by events, will keep responding with reactive, disconnected policies; and the nightmare will continue.
As many scientists and doctors have pointed out, vaccination can be only part of the answer. Immunising the most vulnerable people will reduce the death rate, but if the disease continues to rage through the rest of the population, the consequences will still be terrible. The prospect of very large numbers of people – tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands – being afflicted by long Covid should horrify any government concerned about the welfare of its citizens.
I have heard Covid-19 described as “a mass disabling event”. Given the numbers who continue to suffer grave effects several months after mild infection, and the high proportion of survivors of severe infection who show long-term symptoms, this could, unfortunately, be accurate. Other measures will be required for many months, perhaps years.
From the outset, the government has tried to persuade us that there’s a trade-off between protecting public health and protecting our social and economic lives. But there is no trade-off. The UK is currently afflicted by the world’s third-highest death rate over the past seven days (after the Czech Republic and Lithuania), accompanied by the social and economic catastrophe of a third lockdown. This is world-beating incompetence; failure on an epic scale. Yet somehow we appear to have normalised it.
So part of the plan would mean acknowledging that a radically different approach is needed. This would begin with a commitment to put public health ahead of profit. Every week brings a new scandal, as the government shows a generosity towards profit-seeking corporations that’s not extended to the rest of the population. The latest involves claims that a £30 free-school-meal pack supplied by a private contractor, contains food that could have been bought for £5.22. Others involve vast untendered contracts for protective equipment, preferentially awarded to those with political connections through a “VIP channel”; and the disastrous privatisation and outsourcing of our test-and-trace system.
This is the crucial issue. Without an effective test, trace, isolate and support system, we will be stuck in the cycle of infection indefinitely. But if you get the system right, you free the nation from both uncontrolled disease and lockdowns. This is the lesson from Taiwan, a country with twice our population density, that has lost just seven people to Covid-19 without ever locking down. It developed its system with the help of participatory democracy, ensuring there was a high level of public consent and engagement; put professionals in charge at every stage; and provides generous support and daily contact for people who have had to isolate.
By contrast, our system has been a fiasco. England’s system has so far cost £22bn. For all the good it has done, this money might as well have been stacked and burned. The government put dilettantes in charge, and handed key tasks to corporations with a terrible track record of delivery. As I revealed in October, teenage call-centre workers on the minimum wage were given crucial tracing jobs that had previously been reserved for health professionals.
As the Independent Sage science group explains, we won’t get a grip on the pandemic until we replace this farce with a system led by the NHS, locally run by public health professionals, in which everyone who is asked to isolate is given all the necessary financial and social help and, if required, free accommodation. Yet the government has so far refused even to acknowledge the failure of this system, let alone produce a plan for replacing it.
Similarly, it needs to make lockdown easier for everyone. Among other incentives, this means extending furlough payments to the excluded 3 million: the self-employed workers facing economic disaster when they abide by the rules and stay at home.
The government could have used the first two lockdowns and the school holidays to carry out an emergency refurbishment programme in schools, fitting them with ventilation, filtering and heat exchanger systems and windows that open; setting up Nightingale classrooms in unused entertainment venues, and hiring new teaching assistants to reduce class sizes and allow sufficient distancing. Astonishingly, it did nothing except rebuff the desperate pleas of headteachers: not a single penny was provided for school refurbishment. Still the government fails to act: it plans no programme of works. Schools, when they fully reopen, will once again become incubators of infection.
The government failed to get a grip on the pandemic in other institutions, such as immigration detention centres. It has inexplicably abandoned its commitment, during the first lockdown, to find safe accommodation for all homeless people. If anything, we are going backwards.
Those who run this country have been instructing us for years that the government should get out of the way, ceding its powers to an abstraction they call the market. Governing well is, to them, almost a form of sacrilege. The state should be timid, shrivelled, incapable.
Faced with a national emergency, led by a man whose first instinct is to dump responsibility and transfer blame to others, they lurch from error to error, turning every crisis into catastrophe. And even now, almost a year into the pandemic yet still without a plan, the government ensures that our suffering will once again be in vain.
George Monbiot is a Hunturdeals columnist