By Reginald Banks
Omicron is just the latest in a long list of variants to devastate the world and is by no means necessarily the last one. First discovered in South Africa, it became the dominant strain around the world with lightning speed.
Daily cases in the UK reached a new peak of 160,000 a day and still remain in the tens of thousands. The variant appears to be less deadly than previous strains, with deaths remaining relatively ‘low’, though still recording several hundred a day. However, hospital admissions have more than tripled since early December.
Omicron’s high transmissibility, combined with an increased chance of evading the vaccine, means that it is more likely to infect and kill elderly and vulnerable people. The high transmission rate and increase in hospital admissions now threatens the normal functioning of key areas of society, particularly the hospital and school systems.
The virus is putting tremendous strain on an NHS already pushed to the breaking point, not only in the form of an increasing rate of hospital admissions but in staff shortages, with many doctors and nurses forced to isolate. Staff absence levels have risen to 8%, compared to the usual 5% in the winter months. Several hospital trusts have declared ‘critical incidents’ stating that they are on the brink of not being able to provide critical services, because unsafe staffing levels have been reached.
Sajid Javid has given all 103,000 unvaccinated front line health care workers until 1 April 2022 to receive both doses of the vaccine or risk losing their jobs. This will heap further pressure on an already broken system. Needless to say, the government does not have a contingency plan to combat this.
The school system is also under significant pressure. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has called on retired teachers to return to work to help with the staffing crisis. The absence rate is only increasing; on 20 January over a million students, or one in eight, were absent from school for Covid reasons; 9% of staff were also off with the virus.
Unlike previous waves the Government cannot claim that it was caught unaware by events. Such a re-emergence was inevitable given the globally endemic spread of the disease and it was anticipated to take place over the winter. Given this, their refusal to take the necessary steps to protect the population – a lockdown over Christmas and the New Year – was inexcusable.
Now government policy towards the virus has reached a new peak of negligence with the removal of work from home guidance and mandatory mask wearing. From the beginning of February care homes will have no limit to visitor numbers and rules for managing outbreaks will be eased.
Although the requirement to self isolate after testing positive for Covid still remains in place, the length of time a person is required to do so has been reduced from 10 days, first to seven, then to five. Lateral Flow Tests will soon no longer be freely available. Johnson hopes to scrap mandatory self-isolation for people who test positive for Covid no later than 24 March, when regulations expire.
Although these relaxations were precipitated by the ever-mounting government scandal, they represent part of the general strategy of capital: to keep business – and therefore schools, transport, social life – open, so profits can flow. Zahawi put it like this: ‘As we transition from pandemic to endemic it makes me even more determined to fight for children to be in school every day they possibly can be.’
Just because the disease is becoming endemic, doesn’t mean the population has developed sufficient immunity or that the virus may not again mutate into a highly deadly and transmissible variant.
Socialists must reject the narrative being pushed by the Tories and the media that the Omicron variant is mild and a ‘reasonable’ number of deaths among the elderly and vulnerable should be sacrificed for the normal functioning of society.
Not only is it callous to consider 300 deaths a day ‘reasonable’, but also counterproductive in the longer term, leaving the virus to circulate and mutate.
As we go to press infections are falling and it is hoped the death rate will follow. In such circumstances we should not call for a full lockdown – the opportunity for that has passed – but for maintaining basic safety measures, like masks, ventilation, testing and isolation for the infected – on full pay, not sick pay.
When transmissions are high and rising, the only solution is to close indoor facilities such as restaurants and bars. Any such lockdown will only be effective if a full package of supportive measures for workers are introduced, including furlough paid at 100% of wages, the reintroduction of protections from eviction and the restoration of the uplift to Universal Credit. Without these supportive measures, contagious workers would be forced to go to work or facedestitution.
However, national or regional lockdowns and the accompanying supportive measures can only ever be a temporary solution. The experience of the past two years has shown that the virus cannot be dealt with on a national basis. The virus is constantly mutating, particularly in those countries with high rates of poverty, where lockdown measures are near impossible to implement and access to the vaccine is virtually non-existent.
The UK has ordered enough vaccines to be able to donate 100 million doses a month to poorer countries without denting its own programme, yet it refuses to do so. More than this it refuses to relax patent rules on vaccines for fear it would affect the profits of the pharmaceutical companies by allowing nations around the world to produce their own. By restricting the vaccine in this way the imperialist governments are opening the door to the emergence of further variants.
We should demand nationalisation of the profiteering pharmaceutical companies under workers’ control in order to increase global vaccine production and distribution, for free. We need to aim for the complete eradication of Covid with a global plan to bring healthcare in underdeveloped countries up to the standard of the imperialist centre – a World Health Service free at the point of use.