The announcement by Boris Johnson came far too late and has inevitably meant that the lockdown must be longer and harsher than a more timely lockdown – the autumn circuit-breaker – would have required. The lack of urgency from the whole of the UK government-supporting political establishment has once again put a great burden on all people in England – a dire reminder that when political maneuvering takes precedence over public health, it is the public who suffer.
Massive pressure was brought to bear in England over recent days by the campaign of the National Education Union (NEU) and other education unions to highlight the safety of staff working in schools. Scientists, particularly through the exemplary work of Independent SAGE, were becoming increasingly vocal about the need for urgent full scale lockdown measures, including school closures, to stem the spread of the virus and particularly its new strain.
After it was already clear that the government was planning to announce a full lockdown, the Labour opposition at Westminster also finally called publicly for the inevitable – too little, too late.
Despite the much lower prevalence of Covid-19 – estimated at around four weeks behind the timescale of the spread of the new strain of the virus in south east England – but faced with rapid rises in prevalence, the Scottish government had already preempted the Johnson government by an emergency recall of the Scottish Parliament to declare an immediate and firm lockdown for the mainland of Scotland, and implemented school closures across the whole country until February at least.
The main teachers’ union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), had held consultative ballots for industrial action over school safety in several areas putting significant pressure on the Scottish government. Unlike England, the Scottish government had also rightly implemented travel restrictions, both within Scotland and between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The Welsh government and Northern Ireland Executive had also already announced big scale lockdowns for the whole of their jurisdictions from Christmas, with further measures being considered currently including the demand for school closures.
Firstly, these lockdowns must not end until case rates have been driven down to summer levels and the vaccine rollout has made solid, proven progress. An effective, publicly run, localised track and trace system with widespread testing must also be in place for the whole of the UK – without the motive of profit and cronyism hampering the operation as it has done so far.
Mass testing requires development and investment in the most effective testing technologies, not the reliance on low effectiveness Lateral Flow Tests. Testing must also cover effective screening and quarantine at airports and other entry points to Britain and Ireland, following the successful actions in combating the virus in New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, and a host of other countries which now enjoy normal public life free of Covid-19.
All of this is in order to prevent the whole of Britain and Ireland being stuck in a similar limbo to that which we found ourselves in towards the end of last year: rising Covid-19 cases, and still without the freedom to hug our families and laugh with friends.
Secondly, to enable this, a comprehensive package of financial support must be provided by the UK government for all who need it, whether in England or the devolved administrations. Furlough at 80 per cent is not sufficient when your wage barely covers your rent and living costs at the best of times, and Universal Credit already fails to meet the needs of millions of Britons.
Only by ensuring that public money goes directly to those who need it can there be hope of protecting the lives and livelihoods of all in the UK, while ensuring compliance with the lockdowns. Massive funding needs to be put not just into financial support for individuals and into healthcare, but also towards education services to combat the loss of schooling by millions of children and students, and to avoid the waste of a generation.
Decisions need to be coordinated and made across the whole UK on an equal basis, through restoration of joint ministerial committees and other bodies where the devolved administrations and UK government work in a genuine collaboration to coordinate combating the virus effectively. Local government in England, and across the UK, needs to be given responsibilities for sharing in decision-making for their areas.
There needs to be the development of a strategic approach across Britain and Ireland to the elimination of Covid-19. The roll out of vaccines is vital, but will take many months to have a significant and lasting effect. So an elimination strategy must also immediately include the key elements of: coordination across the whole of Britain and Ireland; careful management of international travel and other travel restrictions (through supporting local ‘Green Zones’ of eventual low Covid-19 incidence within Britain and Ireland); effective test and trace systems; and consistent public messaging of timely actions.
Without these measures, implemented with a view to eliminating Covid-19 from the British Isles, lives and livelihoods will continue to be damaged and destroyed while the virus is merely temporarily staggered, ready to come back forcefully or mutate further into even more virulent strains once the lockdowns are over.
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