Politics & Economics

Health vs the economy: what’s the best way out of the pandemic?

08 November 2020

You see it on the TV, you read it on Twitter, you hear about it on Instagram. However you get your news, the debate around covid-19 is increasingly framed as a balancing act between lives and livelihoods, health and wealth.

The neoliberal ideologues of The Economist waded into the debate on whether there should be a second lockdown in the UK by saying it “it would be wrong to return to a lockdown, even a short, sharp one” (Leader, 17.10.10). Dismissing any chance that the “shortcomings of Britain’s tracing system could be fixed” in three weeks and predicting people will “flout” the rules, they conclude the coronavirus is best left to its own devices.

Lockdowns, The Economist claims, result in “a costly mess”. This seems to be backed up by the figures. GDP plummeted by nearly 20% in the last lockdown and economists were predicting a 10% fall over the course of 2020 and 2.8 million unemployed, even before the lockdown announcement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, an economic research body, predicts a second lockdown followed by regional restrictions will create a budget deficit of 20% of GDP and a debt-to-GDP ratio rising to 120% – which would put the UK in the position of Greece 10 years ago.

But what is the human cost of the ‘let it rip’ policy?

Sage, the government scientific advisors, finally scared Boris Johnson out of his “whack a mole” policy by demonstrating that the inadequate system of tier restrictions would not stop the rise of cases, hospitalisations and deaths during the second wave. They predicted another 85,000 deaths on top of the 40,000 in the first wave.

And it wouldn’t stop there. A high plateau of cases and subsequent deaths would prevail… until another rise, possibly over Christmas and New Year. On top of this scientists reckon that a third global wave could sweep over us in 2021.

A “test, trace, isolate and support” system, as David King of Independent Sage calls it, is crucial but its full benefits will only be felt if cases are brought down very low. Vaccine trials in Oxford are promising, especially for the vulnerable over-55s, but it would be well into 2021 before production could be ramped up for a mass programme. Even so, there is no guarantee that mutations in the virus would not require the repeated development of new vaccines, as with flu.

So we are faced with the choice of waiting for herd immunity or restricting the spread of the virus to manageable levels, as has been achieved in Taiwan. If you’re tempted to think herd immunity is the easy option, then remember that although one million people have contracted the virus in the UK, herd immunity would need 70-80% of the population to catch it. And, as yet, there is no proof of how long herd immunity would last.


Zero-covid policy is the term that has been applied to the strategy to bear down hard on the disease with a view to bringing cases down to none. Right wing politicians and commentators like to claim it doesn’t work, pointing to Scotland’s inability to reach zero cases or resurgent outbreaks in New Zealand or China. But this amounts to condemning a policy purely because it doesn’t immediately reach its goal or encounters temporary setbacks.

Indeed to be truly successful, zero-covid needs to be an international policy. But it is the approach science and medicine have taken to deadly diseases in the past, leading eventually to the eradication of smallpox among others.

Countries, like New Zealand, China and Vietnam have pursued it relentlessly and both their death figures and their economic performances have been among the best in the world. Last month Melbourne, which accounted for 90% of Australian cases, recorded no cases and restrictions were lifted. Meanwhile People before Profit TDs (MPs) have called on the Irish government to pursue zero-covid in conjunction with Northern Ireland, obviously something the Unionists would never countenance!

The really scandalous weakness has been “test, track and trace” which was handed to private companies who have failed miserably. Now Johnson is talking of bringing in local authorities. This should have been done from the outset. But councils are still being hit by huge cuts to their budgets. Yes they and the NHS plus the universities should run a public TTT system but billions need to be given them to build a comprehensive health emergency system.

We need to call for the closure of schools, universities and non-essential workplaces until adequate safety measures and a credible test and trace system are in place.

Rather than adopt a zero-covid policy, leader Keir Starmer’s response has been to demand the government don’t lift the lockdown till the R number is below 1, i.e. the first signs of a tailing off of cases. His decision to rubbish the National Education Union’s warning of the danger of total opening of the schools is a disgrace. It is obviously aimed, like his whole covid policy, at proving to the bosses that he too puts “the economy”” i.e. their profits above our lives.

If only Sir Keir was as aggressive towards the Tories as he is against the left wing of his own party… but that is another story. His policy is to stick closely to the SAGE experts and only attack Johnson for incompetence, and when he lags behind their advice because of his backbench rebels and the Tory tabloids screaming headlines.

The Labour lefts’ opening statement, For a zero covid strategy, issued before the lockdown, mentions New Zealand and some EU countries, but fails to call for international co-operation and solidarity between our respective unions and socialist and Labour parties. A national programme to deal with an international crisis will always fall short.

Secondly it is far too timid in its demands. The Tories’ U-turn rendered many of them – for an immediate lockdown and focus on improved test, trace and isolate, restoration of furlough – redundant. To make it effective requires powerful economic measures to save jobs and assure a living income. Otherwise sheer hardship for millions will fuel the open-it-all-up campaign of the right, which Nigel Farage has just launched a new party to head.

They should have called for:

– 100% furlough (as Bell Ribeiro-Addy did at a Halloween protest in London);

– Universal Credit  raised to the level of the minimum wage;

– lockdown till cases are in single figure

– a fully nationalised NHS and social care system;

– a test, trace, and isolate programme under local authority control;

– workers’ control in the workplaces to monitor cases and ensure public safety;

– a recovery plan, under workers control, to absorb all the unemployed with useful work rebuilding and expanding our public services and greening the economy and …

– a heavy corona virus tax on the banks and corporations and on the fortunes of the super-rich

Socialist alternative

This is related to the Campaign Group’s third flaw. The SCG stated: “Reducing the virus to minimal levels is not in contradiction to economic recovery. It is the precondition for economic recovery”. This is not true in general and specifically untrue in relation to Britain’s capitalist economy.

Britain is hit by a triple whammy: a global pandemic; a world economic crisis characterised by personal, corporate and state debt, which, as we have seen, has massively increased; and Brexit. If the economy continues to be run along capitalist lines, then even with zero-covid workers will be facing years of mass unemployment, falling wages and austerity cuts.

Ending covid has to be linked to answering the question, who should pay for the crisis?

Only by nationalising the banks and not just “failing” companies but also those at the top of the food chain can we garner the resources of the country and avert disaster for working class families. Then we can plan a way out of the crisis by prioritising what is produced for the common good and how it can be safely done: bigger schools and more teachers; more beds, nurses and doctors; millions of council homes with room to breathe; safe agricultural produce; zero-emissions production, etc.

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