Sunday, 10 May 2020

The Next Step to More Infections

When the historians come to scrutinise the early 21st century and the UK government's response to Covid-19, they will find fewer succinct summations of the muddle we've gone through than Boris Johnson's own pre-recorded statement. Watch it for yourself:

Where to begin? As we're getting more details when Johnson makes a statement in the Commons and has a Q & A with the public Monday evening, we now know for certain what all the papers have trailed days in advance. The loosening of the lockdown proceed with the right to unlimited outdoor exercise, the chance to play sports in public spaces with members of your household, and the freedom to jump in your car and visit those beauty spots without Derbyshire plod jumping out of the bushes. That's fine and sensible. However, what isn't are Johnson's plan to send some of us back to work. We know the government want to do away with furlough and are concerned, thanks to their low opinion of the hoi polloi, for the consequences the extended absence from work for millions of people will have on labour discipline. Forget the PowerPoint presentation, the meaning of R, and switching up the slogan from Stay at Home to Stay Alert, this was the centrepiece of this evening's announcement.

And it is concerning. Presently, coronavirus infections run at about 4,000 confirmed new cases a day. The real figure will be much higher. The people catching it are those in harm's way - the NHS and care workers, key infrastructure workers, supermarket workers and, in turn, their households and others they come into contact during the course of their work. The government, however, want to see a phased return to work with the same message that you should work from home if you can, and go into work if you must all the while avoiding public transport (cycling and walking is singled out as the favoured method, as if everyone lives a stone's throw from their workplace like we're living in the 19th century) and abiding by social distancing measures at work. The problem here is 'must'. Why must some people return to work if they're not classified as a key worker? Why should they risk their health to earn the boss a few bob when then can stay safe at home? Why indeed. Hospital use is declining, though how much of this is thanks to the blunt advice some, even acute cases, would be better off staying away, and so is the grim tally of daily deaths. And yet the virus is very much abroad. New Zealand we ain't. It doesn't take mastery of spatial epidemiology to suppose having more workplaces open is going to bump up the rate of contagion.

The biopolitical management of this crisis has, from the outset, been a matter of class politics. Already it's women and minority ethnicities bearing the brunt because they disproportionately happen to be overrepresented in the care sector. Expanding the return to work to manufacturing will see more low paid workers, again largely women, largely minority ethnicities and nationalities, put at risk. Meanwhile the managers and bosses screaming about the flatlining order book will carry on working from home, as will the majority of the Tory white collar base, small businesses, and its massed cohorts of the retired. They can cheer on, they can literally clap on the efforts of others while they remain safe from infection. A happy coincidence then that protections remain in place for those most likely to vote Conservative next time.

Since Johnson recovered from his own brush with the bug, he has talked about saving lives before all else. Indeed, his talk tonight is caveated with an emphasis on following the data. And to be fair to him, among the malcontents and psychopaths he has elevated to position his is a more moderate voice. Safety first is the impression he wants to convey. This is all very well, but what matters is deeds, not words. Allowing more places to open, giving some bosses the green light to force their workers back into work now will drive infections up, will cause more suffering, and will lead to more unnecessary deaths.

No comments: