The desperate U-turn by Boris Johnson over coronavirus restrictions highlights the gross failings of the Tories’ handling of the pandemic.
It also poses crucial questions about how to resist the Tories’ murderous policies.
On Saturday afternoon Johnson tore up the plans to loosen coronavirus restrictions over Christmas. Just days before he had recklessly declared that it would be “frankly inhuman” to do so.
An estimated 16.5 million people living in the new tier four areas, which include London and much of the surrounding region, have been ordered to stay at home for a fortnight.
They will be barred from socialising with more than one person even outdoors.
There are slightly looser regulations in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.
Johnson blamed the shift in policy on a new strain of the virus—now called B.1.1.7—that could be more than 70 percent more infectious than the previous variant.
But that is a cover for a much deeper reason for the chaos and carnage. The virus is out of control because the Tories have systematically refused to implement effective measures to contain it.
They have put profits first throughout the pandemic. And that’s still true now.
In his speech on Saturday Johnson said, “People must work from home if they can, but may travel to work if this is not possible, for example in the construction and manufacturing sectors.” Carry on working, carry on spreading the virus.
Even worse he made no mention of schools, even though they are the driver of much of the increase in Covid-19 cases.
Schools had to be kept open last week so that people could go to work. And closing them would have shattered the sense of a “normal” Christmas with shopping and spending to fatten the profits of big business.
The minutes of the Sage group of scientific advisers from 26 November say, “Cabinet Office to look at policy options (e.g. in relation to timings of school breaks) to enable families to avoid contacts in preparation for seeing older or vulnerable relatives over Christmas.”
Instead, government ministers rushed to court to force councils such as Greenwich in south London to withdraw advice to close schools a few days from the end of term. The councils knew cases were soaring and that schools were a key area of transmission. The Tories refused to listen.
The figures that Johnson said had forced him into a U-turn are not new. The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said on Saturday that the new variant was first seen in mid-September—three months ago—in London and Kent.
In the week ending 18 November, the variant accounted for around one in four cases in London, the South East, and eastern England, he said.
However, by the week ending 9 December, that had risen to 62 percent in London, 59 percent in eastern England, and 43 percent in the South East.
But there was no shift in policy, no further restrictions on work or education. Capitalist Christmas came first.
Did the Tories wait as long as possible to sound the alarm to keep the tills ringing?
And Keir Starmer’s Labour Party went along with key parts of the message. Labour has supported or abstained in parliament on the Tories’ plans.
On 14 December on his radio phone-in programme Starmer was asked what he would say to London mayor Sadiq Khan about possible school closures. Starmer said, “Talk to the health secretary about what we can do this week to keep schools open, try to keep them open this week.”
The latest regulations will be reviewed at the end of December. There needs to be a real shift by trade union leaders to put forward—and to fight for—policies to protect health and workers’ livelihoods.
Non-essential workplaces need to close. And workers must be paid 100 percent of their wages.
Benefits need to rise. Mental health services need extra funding and resources.
On 4 January schools in England are supposed to return, with secondaries carrying out mass testing using undefined resources and with no real planning. That scheme already looks impossible to carry through.
But all the unions that organise in education should be saying now that there can be no return to any school given the dire situation at the moment. And if the government tries to enforce it then they will encourage strikes.
The Scottish government has said face to face learning in schools will not begin before 18 January. However, this same government insisted that schools stay open until 22 December, despite the EIS union calling for their closure.
The NEU union has said schools in England should move online for the first two weeks of January. But what will happen if the government refuses this demand?
There has to be action, and it has to be coordinated by national unions, not left to individual teachers or school groups.
Nor is there any guarantee that schools will be safe by 18 January. The figures may be even worse.
There can be no return to school as normal. There must be fully-resourced online teaching and special support for children of key workers and the most vulnerable children.
Under the present timetable—which ought to be hugely accelerated—it will be months before there is the prospect of a widespread and effective roll-out of a vaccine. There is still no proper test and trace system.
Unless there is real resistance now, thousands of people will die unnecessarily.