Thursday 7 May 2020

The Class Politics of Easing the Lockdown

If the government had paid attention to the NHS pandemic exercise of four years ago, took the initial outbreak of Coronavirus in China more seriously, ordered more personal protection kit when the opportunity was there, and hadn't dragged its feet over implementing the lockdown the number of Covid-19 fatalities would be far fewer than the official tally of over 30,000 people. No amount of tone policing by the likes of Matt Hancock, or "constructively" pussyfooting around the government's dreadful performance changes this inescapable fact. There are people now dead who should be living, and there are people who are going to die whose deaths wouldn't have happened if the Tories had acted sooner.

After Boris Johnson's own brush with Coronavirus, last week he addressed the Downing Street assembled to say he was holding firm on the lockdown. Being more cautious now and not ending our relatively light touch quarantining measures early, notwithstanding the best efforts of over-zealous coppers and an army of curtain-twitchers, help contain the virus and will mean fewer problems when restrictions are eventually relaxed. Behold, a Tory Prime Minister speaking sense and doing the right thing. Chalk it up, mark it in the diary, put the bloody flags out. But within a week of calming the jitters, we see a certain talking back of the quarantine. Last weekend, The Sun scooped on Johnson naming 26th May as the day to start easing things. On Monday, Rishi Sunak acknowledged the desire of the Tories to hound people back to work by cutting furlough payments down from 80% to 60% of wages up to £2,500/month. Then we had the news the government were paring back on its stay home messaging, with hints some changes to the lockdown will be made after the Bank Holiday weekend.

Reckless idiocy from a Tory party that was negligent from the outset? Well, not quite. The Sun can pretend we're promised "happy monday", with its affectionate nod to the happening yoof of 30 years ago, but quarantine is barely shifting. People might be "allowed" to leave the house more than once a day, drive from A to B provided social distancing is practised and perhaps, just perhaps, be allowed to have picnics in peace without the fuzz going in mob-handed. Nevertheless, what concerns are the arguments being spoken into the Prime Minister's ear by those who have it. Namely the Telegraph and its stable of, well, the unstable. On Tuesday, the paper ran seven comment pieces calling for an end to quarantine. Our good friend Iain Duncan Smith said it was time to unlock the lockdown and trust to people's common sense. Simon Dolan, an accountancy millionaire worth a very precise £142m is crowdfunding a legal challenge to the government's measures. Ridiculous as well as stingy, the Telegraph were kind enough to provide the column inches for him to speak his brains. The stubbornly mediocre Ross Clark found an angle to have a go at the traditional Tory bête noire with his 'Our hysterical teachers' unions refuse to put pupils over Coronavirus.' Perhaps he'd take a different view if he had to be crammed into a stuffy classroom full of coughing and sneezing kids. And then Steve Baker, the self-styled shop steward of Brexit, is allowed to get into a lather about the "dystopian, tyrannical lockdown." Oh, and it was the Telegraph who broke that story about Prof Neal Ferguson breaking his own recommend quarantine rules for a tête-à-tête with his sometimes companion, a story the paper had sat on for weeks until it could be used at the moment most opportune - in this case trying to distract attention from the death toll setting its new, grim milestone.

What gives? Our gaggle of silly geese are articulating, what polls show time after time, the impatience of a distinct minority. Not just folk-in-general who find the curbs frustrating and want to go line dancing or something, but of businesses great and small. For sundry captains of industry, it's not just lost income in the main (though a significant factor for some), but an instinctive, barely articulated terror of workers earning their money away from the beady eyes of their cadres of managerial overseers or, in the case of those on furlough, not doing anything at all. They fear workers might return with senses of uppity entitlement, knowing how dependent their bosses are on them to keep the cogs of commerce going. And they fret workers could start demanding things like adequate social distancing, changed work patterns and more time off, and not be as willing to accept the petty authoritarianism of the office, the warehouse, the factory, the shopfloor. The worry is the longer the lock down carries on, the harder it will be to reinforce labour discipline in the future. Coronavirus has meant, in the main, the largely quiescent and atomised workforce who largely went home in March might return as, well, something different.

For the small business person the situation is more acute. The government are doling out loans and made available payments of £25k, but the suspension of normality points to uncertainty in the future. When restrictions are lifted so a semblance of the old is achieved, how long will it be before the hairdresser, the cafe owner, the HR consultant, the plumber, sees demand for their services climb back to their previous level? Who knows if they ever will again? With a sharp economic contraction and mass job losses, plus millions more feeling the furlough pinch and others realising they've managed without their daily indulgences, the longer the lockdown persists the more terrifying the future gets. What the Telegraph writers are advocating looks completely psychotic if you know the first thing about what not to do during an outbreak of infectious disease, but you can understand why some might find these points of view appealing.

The Telegraph then is responding to this sentiment and articulating it, reminding the government that for them and the interests they hold dear there are things more dangerous than Covid-19. As Russell Lynch, the economics editor put it in a particularly execrable piece, "the cost of saving lives in this lockdown is too high." Yes, even when it's the printing presses keeping everything afloat. What to do? Well, how about opposing this idiocy for starters? Nicola Sturgeon has - rightly - ruled out an early return to work and lifting of restrictions, and so has set her face against it. Which is entirely correct when you look at the numbers dying and the numbers of infected. And Labour? I'm sorry to say its response is proving pitiful. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Keir Starmer's forensically forensic approach, but to - in practically his first act as leader - demand the government produce a plan for easing the lockdown at about the time deaths were peaking was incredibly stupid. No one was calling for it, but what Keir has done is add his voice to the lunatic right. He's helped encourage their preoccupations by mainstreaming their concerns, and for what? Even from the crude perspective of vote grubbing, there is support to be gained from sticking up for the lockdown and being seen to be concerned with saving lives. Poll after poll shows most are worried about an early lifting of the rules, so if we give credence to the argument that we lost in December because we didn't listen to the voters, perhaps now might be a good time? You do not equivocate with people's lives.

The government claims to be guided by the science, but you don't need SAGE briefings to see how deaths and infection rates are far too high to consider anything other than the most modest easing of the rules. New Zealand might be heading back to normality, but that's because they moved early and ruthlessly to stamp Covid-19 out. Germany are lifting restrictions, but again more preparedness was in evidence - but it looks too soon, now they're seeing an uptick in infections. And the United States are minded to swap quarantines and curfews for handwashing and face masks, but they're led by a babbling vacancy and are saddled with a notoriously sociopathic employer class. We're nowhere near the first two countries, and it would be a tragedy, a sick joke if Trump is held up as any sort of model. The leader of the opposition cannot be relied on either, so it's down to the left and the labour movement to make the case for a sensible politics with different priorities. Keep the lockdown. Make sure people are paid properly. Save lives.


Anonymous said...

"There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Keir Starmer's forensically forensic approach, but to - in practically his first act as leader - demand the government produce a plan for easing the lockdown at about the time deaths were peaking was incredibly stupid. No one was calling for it, but what Keir has done is add his voice to the lunatic right."

Phil, you have got this completely wrong.

Johnson was already planning an end to the lockdown. What Starmer demanded was that the Government's plan be put to the Commons for scrutiny, which is supposed to be a completely normal occurrence.

Starmer did not in any way pressure the Government to come up with a plan of any kind whatsoever. Any claim that he did so is simply twaddle.

If you didn't know this already, then you should have done; and now you do know it, please let that be the end of this pseudo-political gobbledygook.

Richard said...

Thank you for this. It is excellent and not to be nit picked.

Lost Tango said...

It doesn't really matter about the nuance. Most people don't listen to that. They will just have associated "Starmer" and "Exit". Not a good message to send.

Dipper said...

Your opening statement is nonsense. there isn't any evidence for any of your assertions. We don't know when the virus first got here but it in France it now appears to have been December so it may well have been the same here and there are many who think they had the disease then. The one thing that seems to produce large numbers of deaths at this stage is having a large densely packed city, eg New York which got absolutely hammered, and the UK and Belgium which currently top the death charts are the most densely populated countries in Europe. The way in which the virus spread is still not completely known so the requirement of PPE has developed during the outbreak.

Once again, the statements of many show a complete lack of understanding of science and cast a very bad light on your statements elsewhere. The idea that 'country X did Y and Z happened so if we had done Y then Z would have happened here' which underpins much criticism is a statement that has no logical validity. If you think that logic is valid you need to stop thinking for a living right now.

Sweden. No lockdown, and in the middle of the European death leagues. At the moment. Explain that one.

Blissex said...

Dear blogger, as to class politics, a recent announcement about Compass worrying apparently quite a bit about voters with high incomes, the mythical "centrist" (that is, thatcherite) swing voters from "Middle England" who are the only ones that can give New Labour an electoral victory:
“In September, Compass will be co-launching a report analysing what over 100 interviews tell us about the attitudes and civic and political behaviour of the top 10 per cent highest income earners in the UK, Ireland, Sweden and Spain”

Anonymous said...


"The one thing that seems to produce large numbers of deaths at this stage is having a large densely packed city..."

...and you think they don't have those in , say, South Korea? Compare the population size and density of Seoul to that of London, then get back to us with your next unconvincing excuse for this disaster of a government.

As for "understanding science": You disregard all evidence in order to draw a conclusion that conforms to your political loyalties.

IE: you support the government; therefore the government MUST have handled the pandemic well... and tens thousands of people dead doesn't change that as far as you're concerned. Then you complain that no one is providing you with the evidence that is right in front of your eyes, that you refuse to see.

asquith said...

Johnson says people who can't work from home will be 'actively encouraged' to go to their workplaces.

You don't need to be King Solomon to see what this entails!