The campaign to beat the pandemic

Comment Omicron – Time for a Circuit Breaker

19 December 2021 / Joan Twelves

Eighteen months ago, we were applauding our NHS heroes and celebrating a renewed sense of community as neighbours and volunteers went out of their way to help each other.

But today the UK bears a horrific resemblance to countries like Brazil and those red states in the USA where the virus is being allowed to let rip in the name of ‘living with it’, and conspiracy theorists and fascists spread their lies and fantasies through social media to influence those who are fed up with restrictions or nervous about vaccination. This corrupt, contemptuous and callous Tory Government ignores the science, puts profit before people, lurches from one inadequate and tardy lockdown to another, and is now more concerned with placating its hard-line right-wingers and making sure its seasonal piss-ups go ahead than doing everything necessary to protect people from illness and death.

Although it is clear that the majority of the population have more trust in the scientists than the politicians – as can be witnessed by the immediate queues for boosters and the majority who say there should be a Christmas lockdown (Savanta ComRes poll) – without clear, urgent leadership, as well as substantial financial and practical support, the current societal chaos will continue. Shortages, sudden closures and company collapses will get worse as Covid surges yet again.

I have lost count of the number of times I have written or said ‘this government has blood on its hands’.  But I will say it again.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Omicron crisis. Recorded cases are hitting new records every day. Omicron is extremely transmissible and more able to evade existing immune responses. Despite all the talk of Omicron being ‘milder’, there is no evidence of this thus far. And even if hospitalisations and deaths are less than resulted from previous waves, the effect on the NHS and other emergency services is just as dire. Those at work are being stretched beyond exhausted breaking point by the absence of co-workers, and resources are being diverted from trying to catch up on that six million-long waiting list as well as the 7-9 million ‘missing’ patients who have not sought treatment during the pandemic. Omicron will result in yet more avoidable sickness, hospitalisations and deaths.

Before Omicron took off, the UK was already running at about 50,000 new Covid cases a day. Today that has doubled to around 100,000. Lambeth, where I live, has the highest rate in London, itself the Omicron epicentre of the UK, and there has been a 90% increase in the past week. The Mayor of London has been forced to declare a Major Incident to help ease the pressure on the capital’s hospitals. My local hospital, Guys and St Thomas’, where there was a seven-hour vaccination queue last week, has cancelled non-essential services and redeployed staff. GPs, nurses, and community health workers have either been diverted to vaccination centres or are volunteering out-of-hours.

Despite Johnson’s claim that ‘we are throwing everything at it’, the move to Plan B is far too little too late, and most of its measures are ineffective. While the boosters are a real advantage, they will take time to have an effect, and we urgently need to drive down transmission of the virus now. The Tories are refusing to face up to this because any action has a price tag.

The Zero Covid campaign has repeatedly called for sensible mitigation measures – improved ventilation (especially in schools, colleges and workplaces), mandatory mask-wearing in all public places, social distancing, the right to work and study from home where possible with all necessary practical, psychological and financial support, including increased sick pay and the restoration of the Universal Credit cut, for those required to self-isolate or shield. We also need an effective publicly-run Test & Trace system.

The campaign is backing Independent SAGE’s call for an immediate circuit breaker. No one wants to cancel Christmas. But equally no one wants to risk infecting their family. We need everyone to be able to cut down their contacts now. Advice to limit contacts is meaningless for many of us if it isn’t backed up by financial support, and companies compelled to allow workers to stay home. That means grants, VAT relief and the return of furlough so that businesses which lose custom or have to close can afford to keep staff on the books.

We have repeatedly said that we do not favour lockdowns to prevent community transmission of the virus other than as a last resort. The Tory Government’s failure – yet again – to follow scientific advice and to mandate the implementation of the most public health protections means that they will be guilty of imposing one – yet again – if we have no other choice in the days, weeks and months ahead.

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