The Tory government is trying to gaslight us into thinking that Covid is over!

The Tory government is trying to gaslight us into thinking that Covid is over despite infections being at record levels and rising.

According to the Office of National Statistics just under 5 million people in England – 7.5% of the population – have Covid this week. This is 1 in 13, up from the previous week’s 1 in 16, which itself was a rise of 1 million from the week before.

The figures in the UK’s devolved nations are no better – 1 in 12 in Scotland, 1 in 14 in Wales and 1 in 15 in Northern Ireland.

This level of infection is the highest recorded by the ONS Survey since it began looking at the situation in April 2020, and surpasses the previous high at the start of 2022, when 1 in 15 people in England were estimated to have Covid.

Hospitalisations and deaths – while less than during previous peaks – are rising; and disruption to education, the health service, business and the economy as a whole is having a significant effect as staff (and pupil) absences rise. The pressure on an NHS under orders to deal with waiting lists is becoming unsustainable.

And yet the Secretary of State for Health says the rise is ‘not a concern’ and ‘is to be expected’. His advice just a few days before Tory MPs gathered for a slap-up dinner? ‘Socialise a bit less’.

The latest variant, Omicron BA.2, is even more transmissible than the original Omicron, BA.1, which caused the December surge; reinfection is possible and vaccine protection is waning. Just the moment, then, for all measures to protect us from continuing infection to be scrapped!

The UK is not alone in trying to brush the rising tide of Omicron BA.2 aside; the USA and most European countries are similarly removing all precautions and protections, and moving to a policy of ‘living with the virus’ (or rather ‘let’s just ignore the virus’) as BA.2 surges.

This policy is based on the belief – one without any scientific evidence – that each variant of the SARS-CoV2 will become milder. But as Christina Pagel wrote in the Guardian on 30 March:

“It is … simply not true that viruses always evolve to become milder. What drives evolution is transmission: variants that infect more people will thrive. Because most Covid transmission happens while people have no or few symptoms, severity is not a driver of evolution but instead a by-product of whichever mutations improve transmission and how they interact with existing levels of immunity. For Alpha and Delta, this led to greater severity and for Omicron (somewhat) less severity, but this was an evolutionary accident. The next variant could easily be more severe again.”

And for many people BA.2 is not that mild, especially if they are immunosuppressed or it leads to Long Covid. The most infected cohorts at the moment are unvaccinated primary aged children and the over 70s. Despite a high level of vaccination, the latter group in particular are at risk from a bout of Covid leading to all sorts of complications.

I have to wonder whether the people who tell us that Covid is ‘just like the flu’ have ever had any kind of influenza more serious than ‘man flu’? Do they even understand that flu is also a killer, albeit a much lesser one than Covid? The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide. 6,168,174 have died from Covid-19 so far.

I also have to wonder whether they understand what Long Covid can involve. Months if not years of incapacity, pain, fatigue, frustration, depression. ‘Brain fog’ may not sound very serious if you’ve never experienced it. But just try driving, handling machinery (even a power tool or an iron), trying to read a book, let alone write anything, when your concentration has gone out the window.

While we are exhorted to get vaccinated, or to get another booster (the fifth for some of us), the fact that the latest variant has breached the vaccine’s defences should be of much more concern than we are witnessing. As Prof Danny Altmann argues, instead of relying on frequent boosters of the same vaccines, we must develop better and longer lasting ones. But instead of investing in the necessary research this government is rewarding the UK’s scientists by selling off the £200 million Oxford Vaccine Centre.

I fully support the vaccination programme but depending solely on it – this government’s only ‘strategy’ – is surely being undermined by the virus’ ability to evade our immune systems. Other protections are essential – the ones which they call restrictions and I call freedom. Mask wearing in public places, ventilation, social distancing, self-isolation are all essential mitigations which we must demand are restored.

So it is in the context of the government’s gaslighting strategy that we have to understand not just the removal of all mandatory mitigations but in particular the withdrawal of free testing and the cuts in funding for academic research and surveillance.

At £2 for a single lateral flow test, a family pack of five is a tenner most people can’t afford on top of all the other price rises this week. And don’t even think about getting a PCR test!

The introduction of charges for a vital medical test in the same week national insurance goes up to, we are told, “help the NHS” is not just a sick joke but a dangerous precedent. What other NHS diagnostic tests will we be charged for next? HIV tests? Mammograms?

The list of those eligible for free tests is extremely restricted and only includes a few of those who were previously advised to shield – many of whom continue to do so to this day. As Frances Ryan so eloquently wrote in the Guardian on 31 March,

“Some high-risk people who need to have Covid treatments, such as antivirals, will be granted free tests, but government guidelines say they are only to be used once they are ill and already showing symptoms. It’s the public health equivalent of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. This fundamentally misses what has been so valuable about large-scale testing over the past two years: it’s not that high-risk people can see if they have Covid, but that those they’re due to come into contact with can.”

This last point is one I have been making. I don’t need to know whether I have Covid – I need to know whether you have and are therefore likely to infect me. It’s a similar message to that for mask-wearing – a message this government has doggedly failed to get across – ‘Your mask protects me; my mask protects you’.

So where is the data going to come from if only a few people are doing tests? Will the numbers drop dramatically next week? After pressure the ONS survey will continue but with a reduced sample of participants. Other surveys will lose funding. Without testing the government’s data dashboard will quickly become meaningless. And without contact tracing the virus will keep infecting and mutating.

However many times I write that this government’s approach to the pandemic has been callous and corrupt, I still find I am taken aback by their approach. Are they really trying to pretend Covid has gone away? Are they really saying that it is legal to infect others?

But this is a government who has shelled out over £700m, with the Department Of Health and Social Care continuing to spend £7m a month, storing useless PPE, much of which came through that Tory- chums VIP channel; who are cutting benefits and pensions while the cost of living and inflation soars and think a loan is the way to help with fuel prices; who issue orders to drown refugees then talk big about saving Ukrainians lives but don’t deliver visa waivers. So why am I surprised at their continuing cruelty and contempt for others? Why are we all not so much more angry?

Republished from Labour Outlook and zerocovid.uk

Can one arrogant, privileged egotist fighting to save his job wish this global pandemic away?

Remember when the Prime Minister repeatedly told us he was ‘following the science’? Remember those televised press conferences when he was flanked by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser providing the expert advice on what we all needed to know and do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus?

There was no press conference, no updates on the gov.uk website, no sign of Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance, when the Prime Minister announced in Parliament on 9 February 2022 that he was planning to bring forward an end to England’s rules on self-isolation later this month.

‘Following the science’? But the scientists and medical experts of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) didn’t meet until the day after this announcement. And by that time the press was reporting that it wouldn’t just be self-isolation that would end – the days of free testing and even the ‘gold standard’ ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey are limited.

Everyone around the world wants this pandemic to end, to be able to live without restrictions and to meet, love and touch without fear. That doesn’t necessarily mean a return to normal; for millions that normal isn’t something they have any desire to return to. But does that mean we abolish all measures? Is the pandemic over? Can 200 people dying every day in the UK just be written off? Or the over 2 million people currently sick with Covid?

Can one arrogant, privileged egotist fighting to save his job wish this global pandemic away?

Covid is no respecter of borders or British exceptionalism.

Nor is it now a ‘mild’ disease like a cold or the flu. For some fortunate people it’s not too bad. But others can end up facing months, years, even a lifetime of debilitating and chronic illness.

Testing is more than the inconvenience of sticking a swab up your nose to see whether you have Covid. As Professor Christina Pagel of Independent SAGE has said: ‘Without data we are blind’.

And that blindness could include no longer being able to determine whether the virus has mutated yet again, and what effect any new variants are having.

SAGE warned at that meeting the day after Johnson’s announcement that ‘new SARS-CoV-2 variants will continue to emerge … including variants that are less susceptible to current vaccines, resistant to antivirals, or are associated with altered disease severity. … There is no reason why future dominant variants should be similarly or less severe than Omicron, which may be an exception in having lower severity. The next dominant variant in the UK (and internationally) could have similar pathogenicity to previous variants, such as Delta.’

Not being able to identify new variants is just one of the problems associated with Johnson’s plans to declare the pandemic over next week.

Allowing – indeed, encouraging – infectious people, many of whom will think they just have a cold, to mingle freely is a recipe for disaster. It takes us back to the early days of the pandemic when we had few tools to protect ourselves and others against infection, when key workers and those who could not afford to do otherwise were travelling to work in close contact with each other in poorly ventilated workplaces.

Remember Belly Mujinga, who died in April 2020 after being coughed and spat on at work in Victoria Station? Remember the deaths in care homes? Shopworkers already report problems with abusive, unmasked customers; they and other public-facing workers, especially those with unsympathetic employers or on low pay, will be at even greater risk once more if the legislation on self-isolation is abandoned.

The key difference between now and two years ago is of course the vaccines, of which I am a great fan and advocate. But Omicron has exposed the fact that vaccination on its own is not enough to protect us and stop community transmission. And SAGE is warning that ‘there is significant potential for transmission to increase if behaviours revert rapidly to pre-pandemic norms and mitigations are removed’.

Vaccine-Plus

A strategy of Vaccine-Plus, as advocated by Independent SAGE and campaigns such as Zero Covid, is essential. Protecting each other from infection through mask-wearing, good ventilation and effective contact tracing is hardly the restriction to our freedoms the right-wing like to make out, especially not when only 65.6% of the UK population aged 12 and over have had the currently needed three doses, and the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is breaking through to push up case numbers again.

Official figures say one in 19 people are currently infectious. Go on the bus or to the pub or cinema and you’re likely to be alongside several people who may be unintentionally spreading the virus.

This is especially dangerous for those most at risk from infection, those millions of us designated ‘vulnerable’ and those who live with us. Most at risk are those with weak or compromised immune systems who could become seriously ill or die if they catch Covid.

It is a commonly held misconception that those who are at risk are less likely to be in work or education, but this is most certainly not the case. Many will be key workers in retail, hospitality, transport, delivery, education, care homes and the NHS. Many will be children or parents, the groups with the highest infection rates at the moment. And those who can stay at home will be locking themselves down yet again, unable to enjoy any kind of fake freedom.

Not that the government seems to care about that. It stopped all support for shielders many months ago. Appeasing the Covid Recovery Group to keep the Prime Minister in power is the top priority, closely followed by the Tories’ ideological favourites, shrink the state support systems, blame everyone else, and make the poor pay.

It’s not over yet

The pandemic is not over, not in England, not in the UK, and not across the world. While the scientists work on new and better vaccines, the existing ones are saving lives and protecting against some of the worst illness. But there is still a long way to go.

61.8% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 10.6% of people in low-income countries have. This means the virus could continue to rampage through communities, mutating as it does so, and spreading rapidly across the world yet again.

Artivists at Work – Ramona Mason.

The Prime Minister’s plan to declare an end to the pandemic has been met with outrage in many quarters. SAGE scientists can no longer be relied on to be onboard to back him up. Within minutes of the announcement, the Daily Mirror had called it out as the ‘dead cat’ it so obviously is. But it is a dangerous disease-carrying defunct feline which has to be stopped. At the very least, we must demand our MPs ensure self-isolation, testing and mask-wearing continue for as long as they are necessary protections. You can write to your MP here.

Published in Labour Hub, 15 February 2022 and on the Zero Covid UK website

Save lives now, then we can all live well!

Much in Labour’s 10-point plan for living with Covid is welcome, but it ignores the immediate crisis – we have to stop people dying from the virus before we can live with it.

More than 350 deaths per day, over 100,000 daily positive cases and nearly 20,000 covid hospital patients is neither acceptable nor normal.

The Tories’ narrative that the pandemic is over, their removal of even the weak Plan B protections (mask-wearing, working from home and the limited use of covid passes), and – even more worryingly – their plans to shortly end self-isolation for those testing positive for Covid, have to be challenged by Labour.

Johnson and Javid’s rejection of infection control measures in order to assuage their right wing backbenchers, is reckless to the extreme, and is based on eugenicist theories rather than any regard for science or the public’s health and wellbeing.

The brilliant NHS vaccination programme has reduced our risk of death dramatically. But there are no guarantees that Omicron’s inevitable successor variants or mutations will not be more vaccine resistant and deadly.

Not only do we need to keep promoting vaccination – including by calling for employers to give staff paid time-off to get jabbed and recover – we need the protective and mitigation measures of a Vaccines Plus strategy.

These include continuing personal protection measures such as:

  • social distancing and wearing masks in indoor public places, including schools, colleges and workplaces;
  • setting indoor air quality standards, with CO2 monitors and HEPA filters being installed in all classrooms and indoor public venues;
  • all NHS, social care, teachers and those deemed at high risk being issued with free FFP2/3 masks;
  • financial support for all those required to self-isolate or shield, and for businesses and self-employed who are taking a hit from the economic damage caused by the continuing unpredictable high levels of employee and customer absences.

Labour rightly says the test and trace system needs fixing. The first step there must be to dismantle the current discredited outsourced system and hand it (along with the necessary funding) over to the public health professionals in local authorities and the NHS who should always have been in charge of it.

It should go without saying that both LFD and PCR tests must remain free and readily available to all UK residents.

The right to work from home or flexibly has been a long-term demand by many, especially parents and carers, and the experience of the past two years means that now is the time for it to be legislatively enforced.

Adding these immediate essential measures to Labour’s longer-term plans and opposing the UK government’s lethal approach means we can stamp down hard on the virus and make it possible for us all to live our lives without the constant threat of chronic disease or death hanging over us.

But unless and until this deadly virus is suppressed to the lowest levels possible both in the UK and globally, we won’t be able to say we are living with it.

Omicron – Time for a Circuit Breaker

Eighteen months ago, we were applauding our NHS heroes and celebrating a renewed sense of community as neighbours and volunteers went out of their way to help each other.

But today the UK bears a horrific resemblance to countries like Brazil and those red states in the USA where the virus is being allowed to let rip in the name of ‘living with it’, and conspiracy theorists and fascists spread their lies and fantasies through social media to influence those who are fed up with restrictions or nervous about vaccination. This corrupt, contemptuous and callous Tory Government ignores the science, puts profit before people, lurches from one inadequate and tardy lockdown to another, and is now more concerned with placating its hard-line right-wingers and making sure its seasonal piss-ups go ahead than doing everything necessary to protect people from illness and death.

Although it is clear that the majority of the population have more trust in the scientists than the politicians – as can be witnessed by the immediate queues for boosters and the majority who say there should be a Christmas lockdown (Savanta ComRes poll) – without clear, urgent leadership, as well as substantial financial and practical support, the current societal chaos will continue. Shortages, sudden closures and company collapses will get worse as Covid surges yet again.

I have lost count of the number of times I have written or said ‘this government has blood on its hands’.  But I will say it again.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Omicron crisis. Recorded cases are hitting new records every day. Omicron is extremely transmissible and more able to evade existing immune responses. Despite all the talk of Omicron being ‘milder’, there is no evidence of this thus far. And even if hospitalisations and deaths are less than resulted from previous waves, the effect on the NHS and other emergency services is just as dire. Those at work are being stretched beyond exhausted breaking point by the absence of co-workers, and resources are being diverted from trying to catch up on that six million-long waiting list as well as the 7-9 million ‘missing’ patients who have not sought treatment during the pandemic. Omicron will result in yet more avoidable sickness, hospitalisations and deaths.

Before Omicron took off, the UK was already running at about 50,000 new Covid cases a day. Today that has doubled to around 100,000. Lambeth, where I live, has the highest rate in London, itself the Omicron epicentre of the UK, and there has been a 90% increase in the past week. The Mayor of London has been forced to declare a Major Incident to help ease the pressure on the capital’s hospitals. My local hospital, Guys and St Thomas’, where there was a seven-hour vaccination queue last week, has cancelled non-essential services and redeployed staff. GPs, nurses, and community health workers have either been diverted to vaccination centres or are volunteering out-of-hours.

Despite Johnson’s claim that ‘we are throwing everything at it’, the move to Plan B is far too little too late, and most of its measures are ineffective. While the boosters are a real advantage, they will take time to have an effect, and we urgently need to drive down transmission of the virus now. The Tories are refusing to face up to this because any action has a price tag.

The Zero Covid campaign has repeatedly called for sensible mitigation measures – improved ventilation (especially in schools, colleges and workplaces), mandatory mask-wearing in all public places, social distancing, the right to work and study from home where possible with all necessary practical, psychological and financial support, including increased sick pay and the restoration of the Universal Credit cut, for those required to self-isolate or shield. We also need an effective publicly-run Test & Trace system.

The campaign is backing Independent SAGE’s call for an immediate circuit breaker. No one wants to cancel Christmas. But equally no one wants to risk infecting their family. We need everyone to be able to cut down their contacts now. Advice to limit contacts is meaningless for many of us if it isn’t backed up by financial support, and companies compelled to allow workers to stay home. That means grants, VAT relief and the return of furlough so that businesses which lose custom or have to close can afford to keep staff on the books.

We have repeatedly said that we do not favour lockdowns to prevent community transmission of the virus other than as a last resort. The Tory Government’s failure – yet again – to follow scientific advice and to mandate the implementation of the most basic public health protections means that they will be guilty of leaving no other option than to impose one – yet again – in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Nobody is safe until we are all safe

The emergence of something like the Omicron Covid-19 variant was entirely predictable – and predicted by international scientists, health experts and campaigners. As the heads of both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have repeatedly said: Nobody is safe until we are all safe.

Since the brilliant and speedy discovery of vaccines against Covid-19, the rich countries of the world have practised vaccine apartheid against the Global South. Repeated calls by South Africa and India, supported by Biden’s USA, have failed to overcome dogmatic opposition by a group of high-income countries including the EU, the UK and Switzerland, to their landmark proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 medical products.

Without that patent waiver, along with a willingness by Big Pharma to share know-how and expertise and for the G7 rich countries to honour their promises to provide funding and equipment from labs to syringes, the people of every country of the world are being condemned to wave after wave of death and disease.

To date, 42.6% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated. But only 3% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated. Lower middle-income countries have fully vaccinated 26.6% of their people. That’s a huge difference compared with 67.3% in high income countries, and 62.9% in upper middle-income countries.

African countries have administered 234.7 million doses. That means 7.1% of the population of the continent is fully vaccinated.

There isn’t a shortage of vaccines. 9.1bn vaccines have already been manufactured and 12bn are expected by the year’s end – enough to vaccinate the whole world. The problem is one of capitalist politics and distribution.

Here in the UK, we are faced with a government which will always put profits before people, whether at home or abroad. Having let the virus rip since ‘Freedom Day’ on 19th July – and nonchalantly presided over around 1,000 deaths per week and 40-50,000 new cases per day since then – the threat of Omicron has forced it to take some baby steps to look as though it is heeding the warnings of its chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, that they should “go hard and go early”.

Hard? A mask mandate in shops (but not pubs), on buses and trains, and in school corridors (but not classrooms) is hardly hard. All these mitigatory measures and more have been in place in the UK’s devolved nations for months. Early? That’s questionable given that they are the least of the measures that should have remained in place to fight Delta, not wait for the predictable Omicron to arrive.

While we welcome the extension of the vaccine booster programme in the UK – and would welcome it even more if it went hand-in-hand with the UK supporting the TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organisation – the Zero Covid campaign is not alone in calling for an immediate change of strategy and for less reliance on solely pharmaceutical solutions.

While nobody knows how resistant to the existing vaccines and how deadly Omicron may prove to be, the speed of its community transmission in South Africa shows that it is extremely infectious. To stop not just the spread of Omicron but also of the dominant Delta variant, we have always supported sensible mitigation measures – ventilation (especially in schools), mandatory mask-wearing in all public places, social distancing, the right to work and study from home where possible with all necessary practical, psychological and financial support, including increased sick pay, for those required to self-isolate or shield.

We also need an effective Test & Trace system – and it is very worrying that the government is looking to charge for LFT tests and start dismantling the whole system -which, however inadequate, is all we’ve got, unless they finally recognise that this is best done by local authority public health teams and give them the funding to do it. PCR tests for travellers should be free and carried out priorto travel.

These measures are needed to avoid the lockdown that no one wants. But the government continues to ignore the science, including advice on how to tackle new variants, and to refuse to mandate the implementation of the most basis public health protections. It is their mixed messages, their disastrous policies that could very well lead to another lock down this Xmas as the fourth/fifth wave hits, whether that goes by the name of Omicron or Delta.

Published in Labour Hub, 6 December 2021

The Covid-19 Pandemic Isn’t Over Yet

Reckless?

The polite description of a strategy which is currently averaging over 1,000 deaths a week, over 7,000 hospitalisations, and the highest number of Covid-19 infections in Europe with over 35,000 daily cases.

Murderous is my non-polite description.

A return to normality?

Only if you think those 1,000+ deaths are normal.

Labour has an absolute duty to the people of this country to call out the Tories for their deadly, eugenicist policies; and Conference is the perfect opportunity for the Leadership and Shadow Health Team to put forward a robust alternative to the government’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To date, Labour’s approach has been marked by timidity and mealy-mouthed, piecemeal criticisms. The Tories’ scandalous strategy of ‘living with the virus’ has barely been challenged – and no alternative has been put forward.

The Tory government has ended shielding, furlough, and business rates’ holidays. It refuses to provide adequate ventilation in schools. It has failed to increase the absolutely miserly levels of statutory sick pay and is cutting universal credit. It cannot even bring itself to mandate masks in crowded places. Johnson, Sunak and Javid are acting as if the pandemic is over.

The idea that that we must learn to live with high levels of Covid-19 has to be challenged. It is unprecedented in the modern era for government policy to allow preventable deaths of its own citizens on a mass scale. We do not live with cholera, we do not live with polio, we do not live with tuberculosis, and we do not live with typhoid. Like all these diseases, Covid-19 can be managed, and community transmission eliminated.

Medical science and technology have progressed rapidly in the past decades; the speed at which the Covid-19 vaccines were developed is testament to that, so why on earth should we accepting a strategy which does not just allow, but encourages, people to continue to spread a virulent and deadly disease?

I am a great fan of vaccination – and as socialists we should all be supporting it as a collective societal good. But we must not forget that 20% of adults have not had even one jab – one in five of us; breakthrough infections occur even after two jabs; over 100,000 children missed school last week (a figure undoubtedly heightened by the Government’s delay in authorising teenager jabs); and business and industry are facing unpredictable staff shortages as those thousands sick or isolating can’t work.

Vaccine-Plus

But vaccination on its own is not enough. It must be backed up by a range of mandatory mitigation measures, which focus on protection and support rather than restrictions on activities. They include an effective, local and fully-funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support operation run by the NHS and local authorities; all workplaces, including schools, colleges and hospitality venues, being made Covid-safe; and continuing precautionary measures including self-isolation, social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and good ventilation.

As Independent Sage scientists say in their recent Covid Winter Protection Plan (https://www.independentsage.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Winter-Plan-final.pdf)

“Unless such protections are implemented immediately there is a serious danger that more intrusive and wide-ranging restrictions will become necessary later”.

When we talk about vaccination we mustn’t just talk about the UK – a global pandemic requires global vaccination.

No one is safe until everyone is safe

Many on the left have questioned whether the UK should be giving boosters and teenager jabs when poorer countries are crying out for vaccines. But the ‘beggar my neighbour’ approach of the rich capitalist countries isn’t really a supply issue. It is political.

Countries like the UK are turning their backs on the poorer parts of the world; countries they have not hesitated to plunder and wage war in for centuries. Vaccine apartheid and cuts in overseas aid go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that a government which refuses to ensure British children are safe when they go to school, hoards vaccines and refuses to support patent waivers, profit restrictions, prices at cost, or sharing technology, science and know-how.

So rather than engaging in a factional civil war, the Labour leadership should be talking about issues that really affect millions at home and abroad. Conference should be showcasing a different approach to dealing with the pandemic that has dominated all our lives for over 18 months, and that has not gone away – however much we all wish it had.

This is an edited version of my article in the Morning Star on 27 September 2021 during the Labour Party Conference.

Has the government gone down the pub?

The replacement of the philandering Matt Hancock by hard man Sajid Javid has opened the way for eugenics to take over the UK’s pandemic policy.

No longer in the land of on-off delayed lockdowns, faulty PPE, dodgy contracts and helping your chums get rich; we are now on Plague Island where the living-with-the-virus, individualistic tough guys survive and the poor, unfit and weak cower and die.

Society has become increasingly polarised – and much nastier – in the past decade.. For me, the way the assassination of Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist in the run up to the Brexit referendum was quickly swept under the carpet was as much a marker of a societal shift as the referendum itself. Instead of our political classes and media seeing that wholly exceptional event as one over which we needed to pause and reflect, the only changes have been an increase in lies, corruption, undemocratic practices, and the denigration of political opponents.

In the early months of the pandemic, while the government’s ineptitude and failures led to the disaster of care home deaths, lack of PPE, increased inequality, and the world beating mortality records, at least (under pressure from the unions) they provided business grants, furlough pay and support for shielders. Civil society demonstrated an unexpected but most welcome neighbourliness and community spirit. NHS and key workers were valued, young mutual aiders helped with shopping, and most people understood we were ‘all in it together’.

But now, 16 months later, that spirit has dissipated as the government has washed its hands of any responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. It is as though, just as we are all fed up with the pandemic, they’ve got bored of dealing with it and have decided to move on to all the other stuff they want to do like privatise the NHS, attack asylum seekers and migrants, restrict voting rights and the right to protest. If the pandemic can be depicted as a war with the virus, the government has raised the white flag and gone down the pub.

Government messages are powerful. Personal responsibility is now the watchword. The kind of personal responsibility that can lead to an asthmatic self-employed single mum not being entitled to any sick pay or welfare payments when she catches covid; allow mask-less drunks to spit on transport staff; and encourage a speaker at an anti-vaxx rally to compare doctors and nurses with those who were hung after standing trial at Nuremberg.

Javid is such an admirer of the right-wing US philosopher Ayn Rand that he reads her work twice a year. So the man now in charge of the NHS, the lynchpin of our welfare state, is someone who believes that the only proper functions of a government are the police, the army, and the courts.

Which brings me to ‘Freedom Day’. The past week has been full of news about how the Track and Trace system is forcing workers to quarantine. In other words, it’s doing what it is meant to do. With mitigation measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing now our personal responsibility, it is the only defence we have against the virus. Despite all its faults – not least SERCO, Baroness Dido and that £37 billion – a functioning FTTIS system is the essential partner to vaccination.

But the failure of government and the press to explain that the avalanche of pings are a direct and predictable result of letting the virus rip through the community, where the delta variant is particularly hitting the young, means that trust in the system has collapsed – more and more people have switched it off and are not bothering to test themselves or their children. No wonder the official statistics in respect of case numbers are being questioned.

I speak to so many people who are in despair. They don’t know who to believe or what to do for the best. The hope the vaccines offered is being undermined by doubt and confusion. Most vulnerable and disabled people are locking themselves down again. This is not cowering; this is common sense.

Last weekend the London Labour conference overwhelmingly backed the alternative strategy of the Zero Covid campaign; based on public health not free market principles. Mitigation measures need to be reinstated; workplaces made safe; practical and financial support provided for self-isolators, and super-spreader events put on hold for a few weeks. Conference also supported an immediate independent public enquiry and the speedy international deployment of vaccines. Delegates called on the Labour leadership to support this strategy.

Ayn Rand said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” There is no doubt that Javid and Johnson have to be stopped, and that we, the labour movement, have to be the answer.

Joan Twelves

Published by Labour Outlook, 28 July 2021

The awful truth confirmed

Dominic Cummings is not a reliable witness but much of what he has said to the select committees about this Government’s catastrophic and criminal handling of the Coronavirus pandemic rings more than true to those who were on the front line or closely following the Government’s actions, reactions and inactions from January 2020 onwards.

Disregard

A contemptuous disregard for the lives and wellbeing of elderly, disabled, at risk, poor, black and brown people, as well as low-paid key workers whether in the health or social care services, schools, supermarkets, delivery or public transport sectors, has characterised the Government’s approach throughout. A decade of Tory austerity, cuts and privatisations mean that the public services we need and expect to support and protect us have been either non-existent or woefully inadequate.

Ignored

130,000 deaths and thousands condemned to a life of chronic illness have been the result: many of them our friends, workmates and relatives. For the past 18 months we have endured delay and prevarication, lies, corrupt procurement practices, a now-denied herd immunity policy, the economy being prioritised over public health, sick and infectious people being shunted between care homes and hospitals, many forced to work and learn in unsafe, unventilated environments, insufficient help and support being provided to those needing to self-isolate, the experience and knowledge of other countries, let alone the UK’s own scientists and experts, being repeatedly ignored. Cummings has confirmed what we have been saying for months.

Responsibility

Dominic Cummings bears as much responsibility for the social murder he has exposed as those he now castigates. His catalogue of errors, while extensive, omits much that he was responsible for – most significantly the £37 billion failed Test and Trace system, purposely set up as an outsourced, centralised system to bypass local public sector expertise.

Roadmap

Nothing Cummings has said will stop a third wave of the virus engulfing us unless the Government is prepared to change its approach from one of mitigation to one of elimination. This requires it to delay lifting the existing restrictions until all four steps in the roadmap have been fully met; to take effective action to fix the test and trace system to stop the spread of the B.1.617.2 and other variants, by handing it over to local public health experts; to make all workplaces and schools Covid-safe; to retain measures such as face coverings and social distancing; and to take effective measures to manage international travel – including free testing and quarantine – based on public health requirements not immigration control.

Inquiry

The Government is hiding behind Cummings’ lack of credibility with the public. The truth has to come out and come out now. Without truth there can be no justice. This means an immediate start to the promised statutory public inquiry, with a short, sharp interim review so that its findings are not delayed for years. The families of the tens of thousands of people who died deserve no less.

Zero Covid statement

Stop the Third Wave!

Einstein is purported to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

A shiver went down my spine and I thought of Einstein when Johnson said that the Government would be sticking to its Roadmap and planned to lift all restrictions on 21 June.

What has happened to ‘Data Not Dates’?

When the Roadmap was published back in February, it said:

“Before taking each step, the Government will review the latest data on the impact of the previous step against four tests.

The tests are:

1. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.

2. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.

3. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations. which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

4. Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.”

Test 4 has not been met.

Variant B1617.2 (the “Indian” variant) was designated a Variant of Concern on 7 May (there are rumours that it wasn’t designated sooner so as not to divert attention from the 6 May elections…), and yet Step 3 – the opening up of indoor hospitality and entertainment, and the introduction of the Green List for foreign holidays – went ahead on 17 May. Since then the “Indian” variant has been surging across the UK, particularly in our poorest, most deprived communities. Its speed of transmission is greater than previous variants and, while vaccination seems to be working, 60 percent of the adult population have yet to be fully vaccinated, and the variant is spreading exponentially among younger people.

While young people are less likely to die from Covid, they are highly vulnerable to the devastating and life-changing effects of Long Covid. And they can spread it to their peers and unvaccinated at-risk adults. As the WHO explains: “When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates – and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.”

At the moment, the UK’s vaccination programme is in a race against the virus’ ability to spread, mutate and vary to a point where the vaccines may not work. This is why local public health experts are crying out for more vaccines and for permission to vaccinate younger cohorts. Even though the vaccines take time to work, without a functioning Test and Trace system they are this Government’s only defence against Covid.

We are on the cusp of a third wave.

Germany recognises this and has barred UK travellers. Spain and Portugal may soon regret valuing their income from UK tourists more highly than the health of their citizens – understandable though their desire to restart their tourist industry is.

Alongside going ahead with Step 3 and then sticking to their plan to ease all restrictions on 21 June, there has been a marked shift in the Government’s approach. Some rules are being changed to guidance. So, you can only have 30 guests at your UK wedding but you may go on that holiday to an Amber List country – it’s your choice and it will be your fault when you infect your hosts or bring another variant back with you. And not only will you get the blame, you may even get an early morning welcome home knock on the door from Priti Patel rather than a friendly local health worker or mutual aider (she does so love going round with her enforcers, so do give her a hug from us all!).

There is an alternative to waiting for the third wave to hit us – and it doesn’t mean staying in lockdown – although it does mean not throwing those masks away and hanging on a bit longer before hitting the beaches and bars.

That alternative is to pursue a comprehensive elimination strategy, based on tried and tested public health principles, rather than this Government’s chaotic policy of “living with the virus”, with its on-off lockdowns, 4.5 million cases of Covid-19, 127,710 needless deaths (as at 22 May 2021), and untold numbers of people with long-term chronic illnesses.

New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan and countless other countries have pursued this strategy, and it has led to far fewer deaths and much less economic damage. People in these countries are going to cinemas, rock concerts and football matches, enjoying socialising and meeting friends without restrictions.

This is the Zero Covid approach. And it is the surest way to Stop the Third Wave.

We must combine the UK’s mass vaccination programme with

  • an effective, local and fully funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support operation run by the NHS and local authorities, providing full financial support and practical assistance to all those required to shield or self-isolate.
  • all workplaces, including schools, colleges and public transportation, being made Covid-safe, and certified as safe by trade unions and/or public health authorities; and continued working from home to be encouraged and supported;
  • continuing personal protection and mitigation measures such as social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing, and good ventilation;
  • effective measures to address international travel – including free testing and quarantine – based on public health requirements not immigration control;
  • Quick action to stamp out any new outbreaks.

The scandal of “NHS” Test and Trace epitomises this Government’s approach. Having bunged a staggering £37 billion of taxpayers’ money to the private companies running this joke of an organisation – a body that should be in the vanguard of our defences against the spread of the virus – we now learn that just last week it managed to “lose” the details of hundreds of people infected with the B1617.2 variant, thus helping its spread. Yet Serco’s contract to run this dangerous and expensive failure has just been renewed.

A major problem is that the lack of real financial and practical support provided for those who are asked to self-isolate means that Test and Trace is increasingly disregarded, as are the lateral flow tests we are being asked to administer to ourselves. If you can’t afford not to go to work, what’s the point of getting tested?

And when you do get to work, the odds are that your workplace won’t be Covid-safe, especially if there is no trade union to argue for protection, but you daren’t complain because you could be fired and not rehired. There have been 3,872 Covid outbreaks in workplaces and 4,253 outbreaks in education settings yet not a single employer has been prosecuted for breaching Covid regulations. The lack of enforcement of proper protection for workers by the Health & Safety Executive is just one of the many outrages of the UK’s handling of the pandemic.

George Monbiot has spelt out the tragedy of the Government’s policy towards the UK’s borders: “During the first three months of the pandemic – from 1 January until lockdown on 23 March last year, 18 million people arrived in the UK from abroad. But only 273 of them were obliged to quarantine. By contrast, across the 12 months to March 2020, 23,075 people were thrown into immigration detention centres: prisons for people who have not been convicted of any crime but are suspected of entering – or remaining in – the country without the correct paperwork. Astonishingly and incomprehensibly, on 13 March 2020 the Government dropped any obligation on passengers arriving in this country to self-isolate. As a result, we know that on 31 March 2020, a week into lockdown, there were 895 people in detention and none in official quarantine.

Only on 8 June was quarantine reintroduced, and even then the system was so leaky and ill-enforced that it might as well not have existed. While other nations imposed strict border measures from the outset, preventing widespread infection, an analysis by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium discovered that, as of 22 May 2020, the virus had been introduced to the UK by travellers on at least 1,300 occasions.”

A year later, things aren’t much better. The stories from returning travellers of the long waits and enforced mingling in the arrival halls of our airports, as well as the recent delay in limiting flights from India, are down to a Home Office and Border Force which would rather persecute and jail refugees and EU citizens than safeguard our collective public health.

Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

A global pandemic must be fought globally. The UK’s hoarding of vaccines is disgraceful, as is its failure to support vaccine patent waivers and to make substantial donations to Covax. Its cuts to overseas aid are already having a harmful impact on the ability of countries in the global south to protect their populations against the pandemic.

Speedy deployment of vaccines internationally without trade or patent restrictions, funded by developed countries and global corporations, is an essential part of a comprehensive worldwide public health strategy to minimise infections and the mutations/variants they enable.

Labour’s leadership needs to move from supporting the Government’s failed, deadly approach to supporting and advocating the only strategy which can Stop the Third Wave – Zero Covid.

22 May 2021

Scrap Serco’s Test and Trace: fund public health not private profit

Thirty-seven billion pounds. £37,000,000,000. Yes, that’s billion, not million.

That’s how much the government has thrown at the misleadingly named, centralised, outsourced ‘NHS’ Test and Trace operation.

That’s three times the £13 billion allocated to the hugely successful, public sector run vaccination programme.

After 130,000 deaths and three lockdowns, it’s time to kill off Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ demonstration of how not to fight a pandemic and replace it with a system run by professional, locally based, public health experts who know what they are doing.

The last few weeks have seen a stream of revelations about how the Tories have used the cover of the pandemic to enrich themselves and their friends – Cameron’s lobbying for his mate Lex Greensill, Dyson’s texts to Johnson, Hancock’s shares in his sister’s company, the VIP fast lane for firms with Tory connections. In February, the High Court of Justice ruled that the government had broken the law by not publishing contract awards within 30 days. And now Transparency International UK has identified 73 contracts worth more than £3.7 billion – equivalent to 20% of all contracts awarded between February and November of last year – whose award would ordinarily be treated as red flags for possible corruption. 27 PPE or testing contracts worth £2.1 billion were awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative party, it claimed.

But let’s not forget that £37 billion in the flurry of new outrages.

When the pandemic first struck, Public Health England set about doing what the WHO was demanding: ‘Test, test, test’. But as the virus took hold, testing was stopped and the Government decided to set up a brand-new operation – a centralised, outsourcing agency.

All its components – administering tests, processing samples in laboratories, and contact tracing – are contracted to private companies such as Deloitte, Serco, Sitel, Mitie, G4S, and Sodexo. As an example of where the money is all going, a year later 2,500 private sector consultants are still working with ‘NHS’ Test and Trace at an estimated daily rate of at least £1,100 per head.

Cronyism and chumocracy have become watchwords for this government. It is no surprise that ‘NHS’ Test and Trace is run by a Tory baroness, and Serco by a scion of one of the most famous Tory families.

‘NHS’ Test and Trace has been a hideously expensive disaster – from the first failed app to sick families were being told to drive hundreds of miles for a test last summer – and it is time the government admitted that. The availability of tests has improved dramatically but (leaving aside the differential accuracy of PCR and RLF tests) testing on its own is meaningless if it is not followed through. There is little point in getting tested, and no incentive to do so, if you can’t afford to stay off work or keep the kids out of school. Tracing the contacts of positive cases promptly and then supporting all who are required to self-isolate are absolutely essential.

These components are now (quietly) being handed over to some local authorities – the ‘Local 0’ project helps their public health team to contact positive cases at the same time as the case is entered into the national ‘NHS’ Test and Trace system. Practical help and support can then be offered when and where it is really needed. 

My home patch of Lambeth was the first London borough, and one of the first in the country, to take over complete contact tracing .

Because they are local, experienced, and steeped in the ethos of the public sector, Lambeth’s teams can quickly locate and contact people to offer support and help. A network of local authority, voluntary and charitable bodies provides support that includes not only food shopping, medication collection, and help with claiming the government’s £500 support grant, but also dog walking and, if appropriate, separate accommodation. In an area of multiple languages and ethnicities, mother tongue speaking contact tracers are integral to the teams.

This kind of positive development is what Zero Covid UK means when we talk about an effective Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support (FTTIS) system being needed to go hand in hand with the vaccination programme and Covid-secure workplaces if we are to eliminate community transmission of the virus.

Those billions still being paid to private companies and consultants must urgently be redirected to the NHS and local authorities so that they can not only set up and expand local contact tracing and support but also receive funding to increase pay and cover budgetary deficits.

Baroness Harding, appointed by Matt Hancock, has now ‘moved on’ to Public Health England’s replacement agency, the UK Health Security Agency. Serco’s contact tracing contract ends on 17 May – and must not be renewed.

Now is the time to demand change.

We Own It and Zero Covid UK are holding a Day of Action on Tuesday 27 April to tell the Government to end Serco’s contract for contact tracing and give the money to the public sector.

Join us in demanding that the government fix contact tracing and scrap Serco.  The money should be given to the real NHS and local public health teams.

© Steve Eason
© Steve Eason

This article was published in the Morning Star, 26 April 2021

No death is acceptable if it is preventable

Covid-19 has dominated all our lives for the past year, and it’s not going away. 130,000 have died and hundreds of thousands are facing grief, loss and long-term illness. Unless there is a change of strategy, tens of thousands more will die.

Most of the Covid deaths in the UK could have been prevented if Johnson’s government had adopted a different approach – an approach based on elimination rather than containment – the Zero Covid approach.

We cannot and must not accept ‘living with the virus’ any longer. Government advisers admit that such a strategy is likely to involve a further 30,000 to 80,000 deaths.

That’s 200,000 acceptable deaths – 200,000 preventable deaths.

No death is acceptable if it is preventable

Johnson likes to say the government has done everything it could. But if it were serious about preventing deaths, it would at the very least –

  • properly fund the NHS and its staff,
  • provide the highest quality PPE,
  • scrap Serco’s test and failing-to-trace system,
  • provide full financial and practical support to those required to self-isolate, quarantine or shield,
  • fund local authorities for the crucial work they are doing,
  • ventilate classrooms and workplaces and make whatever structural changes are necessary to enable safe social distancing,
  • provide kids with laptops and broadband,
  • enforce health and safety laws,
  • deal with cramped and overcrowded living conditions which allow the virus to keep spreading amongst our poorest communities.

Instead it has boasted of world-beating this and world-beating that, when the only thing world-beating about its approach has been the death toll and crashing economy. It has squandered billions enriching private companies who have failed to deliver – billions which could have been spent addressing the class, racial and gender inequalities, as well as the dire discrimination faced by disabled people, exposed by their response to the pandemic.

The Zero Covid approach is one which values human lives before profit, which values the health of us all before the wealth of the few.

There are many misconceptions about Zero Covid. For starters, it does not mean endless lockdowns. The reverse – it means an end to this cycle of half-hearted on-off lockdowns. It is based on the strategy humanity across the world has learnt to pursue when faced with a pandemic: trace, isolate and support to stop the spread; vaccinate if you can. Why is that so difficult this time around? Climate change means more, not fewer, pandemics in the future. We need to learn the lessons and get it right next time.

Critics say that zero Covid is a fantasy. But it is living with a deadly virus which is the fantasy. No country is ‘livingwith the virus’. But a number have charted a way through the pandemic by pursuing an elimination strategy – driving down community transmission and using local test and trace systems to stop new outbreaks. The UK’s vaccine rollout is vital, but will not end the pandemic on its own, not when the pandemic is global, prone to variants and mutations, and vaccine nationalism is on the rise.

Of course, we can’t totally eradicate the Covid-19 virus – but reducing and aiming to eliminate community transmission is possible – as we can see from New Zealand’s five deaths per one million population and Vietnam’s 0.4 per million, compared to the UK ‘s 1,828 deaths per million, which even beats Brazil and the USA.

Critics like to point out that New Zealand is small. So it is worth noting that Vietnam’s population is 98 million compared to the UK’s 68 million.

In the past week the BBC has reported how Iceland is now virtually Covid-free, with just 20 active cases and 29 deaths. The Guardian in the Tale of Two Islands concluded its report on Taiwan (22 million people, ten deaths, 1,000 documented cases, 0.4 per million) with:

“It all comes down to government clarity and transparency,” said Chen. “You have to let the people know what the government is trying to do.”

But while the lived experience of Sars gave an urgency to Taiwan’s planning, the conclusions drawn were researched and published extensively.

There was nothing stopping the British government, or others, from learning from them in the intervening years. But perhaps because of British exceptionalism, perhaps because other coronavirus epidemics – Sars, Mers – had been contained far from Europe, the UK chose to follow its own deadly path instead.”

It’s never too late to save lives

It’s not too late to urge both Labour and the Government to change their strategy from containment, from living with the virus, to suppression and elimination. Both SAGE and Indie SAGE scientists are already talking about a fourth surge in the autumn hitting the young and unvaccinated if we don’t start getting it right.

Professor Michael Baker, the New Zealand epidemiologist, says – ‘Reaching zero cases doesn’t depend on a country’s size but on strong leadership’.

Real opposition means strong leadership

Labour’s Conference in September may seem a long time away. And it would be great if Labour’s leadership showed strong leadership now by challenging the basis of the Tories’ containment approach to the pandemic by advocating the real alternative.

There have been so many times during the last twelve months where the Johnson government left open goals in its treatment of the pandemic. Labour could have championed education workers and parents fighting for safe schools, could have pressed for the benefit uplift to be extended to all claimants, could have demanded an end to handing out contracts to Serco and other leeches on our NHS, could have demanded a change of approach and strategy.

Instead it is seen as complicit with the Tories’ incompetence and corruption. How else can the Tories’ poll lead and Labour’s ever-sinking popularity be explained? The success of the NHS-led vaccine programmemay be giving a temporary boost to Johnson, but those thousands who have lost family members and friends, who have worked night and day in the most fraught and stressful of circumstances, whose kids have lost their hopes of a future, who have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods and dreams, they won’t forget. Nor will they forgive either Government or Opposition for their leadership failures.

Covid is the number one priority

Momentum is currently organising a Policy Primary to determine which motions to Conference it should back. It would be unconscionable if this year of all years Labour did not discuss the Covid Pandemic. It has to be the number one priority. And it has to be a discussion based not just on criticising the Tories for doing too little too late or lining their chums’ pockets, but on a real alternative approach based on social solidarity. Anything else is endorsing social murder.

Zero Covid’s Conference motion is below. It not only calls for a change of strategy but also links that to how ecological destruction will undoubtedly result in more lethal and uncontrollable pandemics, which is why a green recovery plan has to go hand in hand with a Zero Covid approach.

Word limits mean much has had to be omitted and the politics of the pandemic are fast moving. We anticipate topical amendments and want CLPs to put similar motions closer to the Labour Party’s closing date of 13th September.

The campaign to beat the pandemic

Voting in the Momentum Policy Primary is not the only way you can support Zero Covid. We are a grassroots activist campaign of individual supporters and affiliated organisations. Our supporters come from a range of political parties or none. Our aim is to build a movement to force UK policy makers to adopt an elimination strategy. Our structure allows for local groups to establish themselves and have a say in the running of the campaign. Coordinating our work centrally are teams of volunteers that cover areas such as social media, science and health advisory, press relations and mobilisation. We are part of the Zero Covid Coalition.

We are currently campaigning on workplace safety, for Serco to be sacked and for local authority public health experts to be funded to run local Track and Trace programmes. We support campaigns such as the People’s Covid Enquiry, the call for an official statutory investigation into the UK government’s response to the pandemic, and the international Call for a People’s Vaccine for patents on the intellectual property rights of vaccines to be waived.

*****

Zero Covid’s Labour Party Conference motion

Title: Covid-19 pandemic

Conference notes:

  • The appalling loss of lives and livelihoods due to the Tory government’s incompetence, corruption and refusal to adopt and implement effective measures to drive down community transmission and eliminate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • That this has been exacerbated by a decade of austerity, privatisation and cuts to public services, especially the NHS and local authorities.
  • That the expensive failure of the outsourced Serco Test and Trace system has contributed to this disaster.
  • That individuals have been consistently blamed for systemic and policy failures and not provided with sufficient support through decent sick pay, grants, loans, benefits and other wide-ranging assistance in order to be able to self-isolate, shield, work from home and/or home-school.
  • That climate change and ecological destruction make future pandemics more likely and that the pandemic is a global issue that demands international solidarity.

 Conference applauds:

  • The commitment of the millions of workers and volunteers, in the UK and globally, who have supported their communities, provided dedicated healthcare, and demonstrated scientific and medical brilliance.
  • The UK’s vaccine programme, rolled out and administered by the NHS and local volunteers.

Conference calls for:

  • Labour to adopt now and in the event of any future similar pandemics policies aimed at the elimination, rather than the containment, of the spread of the disease, working with trade unions and public health experts.
  • A forward-looking recovery plan based on the Green New Deal.

This article was published by Labour Hub on 26-03-2021

https://labourhub.org.uk/2021/03/26/real-opposition-means-a-strategy-to-eliminate-covid/

Why Zero Covid?

This is a slightly edited version of my speech to Socialist Health Association London on 9 March 2021. SHAL agreed to affiliate to Zero Covid.

Zero Covid is an elimination strategy supported by many scientists and medics – but at the end of the day it is primarily a political strategy.

Professor Michael Baker, the New Zealand epidemiologist, puts it best – ‘Reaching zero cases doesn’t depend on a country’s size but on strong leadership’.

And he’s not talking about the kind of strong men leaders in various countries who think covid is a form of man flu.

I don’t need to tell you about the UK’s leadership – callous, corrupt and incompetent, and sickeningly proud of this country’s world beating death rate and failed economy.

One that puts the wealth of the few over and above the health of us all.

Yet again we are witnessing another rush to ‘open up from lockdown’ – a lockdown which, despite being much weaker than last year’s, has undoubtedly had a major effect on pushing down infection rates.

Even so the virus is just as prevalent now as it was in mid-October, just two weeks before the November lockdown – and reopening the schools is predicted to push the R number up by between ten to fifteen percent. And you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that the virulence and transmission speed of the UK variant along with the other variants and mutations we are now experiencing will drive infection rates up at a faster speed than before.

The government’s strategy is clear – to place all its bets on the vaccine – and then to ‘live with the virus’.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a major fan and advocate of vaccination – but on its own it can only be part of the story. Because a global pandemic means the whole world has to be vaccinated – and that is going to take some time – even without the nationalistic vaccine wars and patent protectionism we are witnessing.

They admit themselves that such a strategy is likely to involve a further thirty thousand to eighty thousand deaths – on top of the hundred and thirty thousand we have already suffered. In fact Whitty has said today modelling shows a further thirty thousand deaths as lockdown eases.

Two hundred thousand acceptable deaths. Two hundred thousand preventable deaths.

No death can be acceptable if it is preventable.

If the government was serious about preventing deaths not only would they

  • properly fund the NHS and its staff,
  • provide the highest quality PPE,
  • scrap SERCO’S test and failing-to-trace system,
  • provide full financial and practical support to those required to self-isolate, quarantine or shield,
  • fund local authorities for the crucial work they are doing,
  • ventilate classrooms and workplaces and make whatever structural changes are necessary to enable safe social distancing,
  • provide kids with laptops and broadband,
  • enforce health and safety laws,
  • deal with cramped and overcrowded living conditions which allow the virus to keep spreading amongst our poorest communities

– and that’s just for starters –

then, even without a zero covid strategy, it might be possible to take them seriously [and stop calling them murderers].

You might say that all sounds very expensive, but compared to the billions this government has squandered and handed over to private companies we can’t afford NOT to do it, not if we value human lives before profit.

No country is living with the virus. But a number have pursued a strategy of zero covid and are living with its near elimination.

Of course we can’t totally eradicate Covid – but reducing and aiming to eliminate community transmission is possible – as we can see from New Zealand’s five deaths per one million population, Vietnam’s nought point four per million, compared to the UK ‘s one thousand eight hundred and twenty eight deaths per million, which even beats Brazil and the USA.

[Oh – and by the way, Vietnam’s population is 98 million compared to the UK’s 68 million]

Which brings me back to Michael Baker. What it takes is strong leadership and a determination to protect your citizens, all of them, not just your chums and their bank balances.

Zero Covid does not mean endless lockdowns. The reverse – it means an end to this cycle of half-hearted on-off lockdowns. It is based on the strategy humanity has pursued for centuries across the world when faced with a pandemic. Track, trace and isolate to stop the spread – then vaccinate if you can. Why is that so difficult this time round? Climate change means more, not fewer, pandemics in the future. We need to learn the lessons and get it right next time.

It’s not too late to urge both Labour and the Government to change their strategy from containment, from living with the virus, to suppression and elimination. Both SAGE and Indy SAGE scientists are already talking about a fourth surge in the autumn hitting the young and unvaccinated if we don’t start getting it right.

And it’s never too late to save lives.

There’s much more I could say – and I’ve probably left some really important things out – but I’ll stop there.

I’d like to propose SHAL affiliates to the Zero Covid campaign. We are a grassroots independent campaign involving community, trade union and political activists as well as health workers and scientists. We have model motions for Labour Party and Women’s Conference and will happily supply speakers to constituencies and trade unions. And we are having a day of action this coming Saturday which we hope you will support.

None of us are safe until we are all safe

When, late on a winter’s Friday afternoon, I received a text inviting me to book an appointment for a Covid vaccination I was taken aback by the intensity of my feeling of relief. It was as though a weight had been lifted off me – a weight I didn’t realise had been crushing me down from the time I first learnt about Coronavirus.

I am someone with ‘underlying health conditions’, someone who is ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’. I’ve been chronically ill all my adult life. I have had major operations; years of searing pain; I have lost decades of my life to chronic fatigue; I have been in intensive care and know what steroids and opiates do to your head as well as your body. I didn’t need the government to tell me to stay at home to protect myself. I knew that Covid could kill me and what a Covid death would involve.

Over 2.2 million of us have been stuck indoors, often alone, for months and months. We have received minimal support – relying on friends, neighbours and local volunteers for the most basic help. School children are not alone in needing laptops, broadband and tech help. Short term self-isolators are not the only ones who need a massive increase in financial support.

Our unmitigated joy at the prospect, and then the reality, of vaccination should not be underestimated. Most of us are of an age and/or disability to know and understand pain and grief. We did not expect to escape being counted amongst the hundred thousand and rising who have died an unnecessary, preventable, painful obscenity of a death as the virus has been helped to spread by this Tory government’s inhumane and heartless policies.

And, despite the miracles being wrought by the world’s scientists, we cannot yet be sure that we will escape that fate.

The conventional line is that the Tory government is incompetent – and of course it is. But it isn’t incompetence which very efficiently handed out £21.6 billion worth of contracts for PPE, hospital supplies and an outsourced failed test and trace system to a raft of politically connected companies and individuals;  which embraced, and then denied embracing, a herd immunity strategy; which pledged ‘whatever it takes’ funds to local authorities and then reneged on that promise; which spent £840 million on their Eat Out SuperSpreader while refusing to feed kids during half term; which for a decade ran down, underfunded and privatised our ‘world beating’ National Health Service – and then clapped as staff from overseas were shown the door in the name of taking control. None of that was due to incompetence. Rather, it was a brutal demonstration of the dominant political and economic ideology of our times – one based on individualism rather than collectivity, competition rather than mutuality, big business rather than public health – Profit before Patients, Profit before People, Profit before Life.

The death rate is obscene, and all the more so when you discover that it doubled in just 76 days – 76 days which included Christmas and the on-off opening of schools, and this current phoney lockdown. And just look at the lockdown. It designates estate agents as key workers, allows employers to insist workers come in regardless of health and safety on their commute as well as at work, keeps non-essential construction sites working, allows cleaners to go between homes but bans your mum from visiting, leaves the homeless to freeze on the street, keeps nurseries open but closes reception classes, and provides so little support that only a tiny minority of those who must self-isolate if the virus is not to spread further can afford to do so.

Two young men have been fined £10,000 each for organising a snowball fight. But where are the big fines for bosses threatening workers with the sack if they object to being put at risk? The BBC reports that between 6 and 14 January, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) received 3,934 complaints relating to coronavirus and took enforcement action in just 81 cases, usually a verbal or written warning, with only one company facing tougher action.

Johnson and his ministers are being quite rightly castigated for saying that ‘they did everything they could’, and the list of their failures is getting longer and longer. But we are not seeing any alternative on offer.

The death rate is expected to increase exponentially over the winter months and the age groups being hospitalised and dying are becoming younger. There is a clear danger that, as vaccines are rolled out, the virus will develop the ability to bypass them through mutation, so they either don’t work, or work less well, against new variants.

Our futures cannot rely on vaccines.

They are only half the story – and can only be half of an effective strategy.

Because none of us are safe until we are all safe.

In the UK, the plan is for 14.6 million people in the top four priority groups to receive the first dose of vaccine, then 17.2 million in the next five groups. That leaves 21 million adults who may receive their first dose by the autumn – and their second three months later, by next Christmas. Those figures don’t include children and assume a steady supply of the vaccine will be available.

And, despite a good start to the UK vaccination programme – noticeably run by public sector health experts rather than privatised profiteers – the wheels are already starting to come off. Distribution is erratic, essential second doses are being delayed and, more seriously, we are seeing the beginnings of the vaccine wars, so predictable when we live in a country ruled by protectionists and nationalists, who have just bragged about brokering an acrimonious divorce from our nearest trading neighbour. A mix of EU bureaucracy, vaccine nationalism and the interests of Big Pharma are a potentially fatal combination. And of course this vaccine nationalism isn’t just about the UK and the EU. Just 25 doses of vaccine have been administered across all poor countries compared with 39 million in wealthier ones. I’ll repeat those figures – 25 compared to 39,000,000.

This is a global pandemic. None of us are safe until we are all safe.

An alternative – and additional – strategy to vaccination is essential.

Vaccination has to go hand in hand with a policy of elimination.

That is the policy which has been followed by countries as diverse as New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia. Closer to home, it has also been followed by the Isle of Man, which is now Covid free.

It is not too late for that policy to be adopted here. If it isn’t we will be left hanging around in on-off lockdowns waiting for the death knell for the next 100,000 of our loved ones. And then the next 100,000.

What does a proper elimination strategy involve? It needs a short, sharp, hard lockdown to drive down case numbers combined with and followed up by an effective, public sector track and trace system, comprehensive testing and quarantining for all UK arrivals. Workplaces and shops need to be made safe (the trade unions know how to do this even if employers don’t), with properly funded and supported self-isolation – either at home or in good alternative accommodation – as well as physical distancing and mask wearing. In this way community transmission of the virus can be slashed so that vaccination will have time and space to work and mutation is less likely.

Few if any of those in power seem to grasp that this strategy minimises costs and disruption to education and business, as well as saving the most lives. Instead, Groundhog Day is back – yet again the Tory right are calling for an end to the lockdown and Labour are calling for the schools to reopen. Both anthropomorphise the virus and want us to think it is going to consult its calendar to check term and bank holiday dates – half term maybe, Easter definitely!

The government can do this. It is doing it this week in response to the South African variant – testing, testing, testing (anyone else remember the WHO calling for just that last March?), using local authority public health experts, with Matt Hancock stating that they are coming down hard on the virus and that their goal is to eliminate every single case.

This is the opportunity Labour needs to embrace a full elimination strategy and, rather than piecemeal criticisms, Labour must put forward a detailed and comprehensive package of the measures that should be taken immediately if not just schools but our whole society is to be able to get on with our lives and plan for a better future.

Covid’s ideological breeding ground

covid death graph
https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/uk/

Battered and depressed by the tragic details of the daily news updates and the frustrations of lockdown, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture – and to forget that the Tory response to the Covid-19 crisis is governed by an extreme right-wing ideology which, when combined with the arrogance and greed of the British upper class, means that their decisions have little to do with saving lives, let alone the NHS.

But there are three key elements of Tory ideology we must not forget as we recoil in horror at what is happening:

  • Lansley ‘reforms’ (aka as the 2012 Health and Social Care Act), which institutionalised competition within the NHS
  • Austerity, which didn’t just starve the NHS of resources but led to follies such as the failure to replenish stockpiles of essential equipment despite the recommendations of Exercise Cygnus
  • Privatisation at every level of the economy, shrinking the state and putting profit before people.

Add to these the poisonous concept of British exceptionalism, cultivated during and by Brexit and given free rein now Boris Johnson and his ‘advisers’ are in Downing Street –the appalling and avoidable result of which is that the UK tops the European death league – and we can begin to understand why we have had to experience:

  • The herd immunity policy pushed by Downing Street’s eugenicists – more appropriately called the ‘cull the herd’ policy.
  • The strategy of mitigation rather than suppression; the failure to comply with WHO guidance to test, trace and isolate; and the refusal to lockdown and close borders at a time when it may have prevented thousands of deaths.
  • Boris’s Nightingale Hospitals – white elephants which diverted resources from existing hospitals and care homes. The questions about who profited from building these have yet to be asked.
  • The disregard and indifference towards social care and care home residents and workers. Why should we be surprised by this when the Tories have repeatedly failed to come up with any social care policy for years, let alone one which would integrate a sector dominated by private companies with the public NHS?
  • The refusal to work with Europe, not just on research and procurement, but now on data collection, with the Vote Leave data harvesters deeply involved in Downing Street’s preferred contact tracing App.
  • Private companies involved at every level – for example Deloitte, G4S, Serco and Capita are all involved in one way or another with procurement and contact testing, with data harvesting a binary choice between the US tech giants and AI firms linked to the Tories’ cronies.
  • The exposure of the health, wealth and race divides in our society, inequalities which have worsened over the past decade and which are now resulting in increased deaths in poor and multi-racial communities.

Now we must add messaging on easing the lockdown so muddled – as economic libertarianism comes into conflict with the public’s health – that key members of the Government have been unable to explain what we are all being advised to do.

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Labour has a historically poor record of confronting the Tories on an ideological level, often letting them get away with pretending they haven’t really got one. Labour failed to challenge austerity until 2015. It tended to treat Brexit as a technical issue to do with trade and EU institutions rather than internationalism and solidarity, and was reluctant to call out its motivating mixture of deeply entrenched xenophobic bigotry, Atlanticism and the demands of a faction of capital. Labour’s response to the coronavirus crisis has similarly focussed on immediate issues rather than challenging the ideological reasons underlying the Tories’ failure to protect the health and lives of all their citizens.

This is to a large extent understandable whilst we are in the midst of the pandemic. Indeed, as one of those tagged with that horrible expression ‘extremely vulnerable’, my most frequently voiced criticism is why aren’t we all shouting louder and louder about the government’s catastrophic mismanagement of almost every single aspect of the crisis. But just as we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture in the now, we also need to be looking at it for the future.

One of the most depressing features of the global response to the pandemic has been the lack of international solidarity. Britain has not been alone in pursuing its own beggar thy neighbour policies. Trump’s xenophobia threatens the whole world.

The devastation being wrought by Covid-19 is massive. The global economy is in freefall, and because globalisation and technology have linked the world’s populations like never before, the coming depression will hit everyone.  By the time the pandemic is under control, millions of working people across the world will have lost not just their lives or their loved ones, but their homes and their livelihoods. Hunger and destitution will make many desperate. Add the climate crisis to the pandemic crisis and humanity’s future is bleak if the most powerful countries continue to pursue what their strong men leaders perceive as their own national interests and fail to learn the importance of international solidarity and what could be the real meaning and strength of globalisation.

In this country, if it is left to the Tories, their new normal will be a return, with a few tweaks here and there – and with a lot of failed companies and thousands of unemployed workers – to the same old system of profit first people last. To this will be added the spice of a no deal Brexit at the end of the year. As many of us would love much of our lives to return to the way they were just a few weeks ago, it is going to be hard to challenge the ‘Britain will bounce back’ concept.

But we must. Labour has to seize the opportunity to articulate our values, challenge the Tories on an ideological level, and develop a new programme that really grasps the existential challenges the world faces. Our immediate demand has to be that workers neither in the developed north nor the global south pay for the pandemic through unemployment, tax rises and poorer public services. But we then need to go much further than that.

Our last manifesto was written for a different time and for a different economic situation. Some of its policies have shown themselves to be the most vital in the current situation – the much-mocked free broadband, nationalised railways, NHS investment; other policies such as a universal basic income and a national care service are now on the agenda. But our vision has to be even greater than any of those.

Experience during lockdown has shown both the vital role of the state and which aspects of our society and economy are valuable and essential, which are desirable, and which are unnecessary. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis then that information must be used to inform a new transformative and radical economic and industrial strategy, which goes beyond the Green New Deal and addresses new ways of working, new ways of living, a shift in the balance between the public and private sectors, and the pressing need to alter the whole basis of income and wealth distribution.

The world changed after the 1919 flu epidemic, and again following World War Two. VE Day was not just about an end to the fighting in Europe and the Allies’ collective defeat of fascism. It was a day of celebration and comradeship which paved the way for one of the most transformative periods in this country’s history. That did not happen by accident. We came together and restructured our society and economy to fight the war and rebuild after it, just as we are doing now in a smaller way to cope with the Covid pandemic. ‘No going back to the way things were’ applies just as much today as it did in 1945.

Keir Starmer rightly says we can’t go back to business as usual and that we must go forward with a vision of a better society. But what does that mean? And how do we turn the rhetoric into reality? Across the world most communities have responded to the crisis with kindness, neighbourliness, sympathy and collectivity. We must all, across the Labour movement, now make use of whatever downtime we have, and the way we can now use technology to talk to each other, to brainstorm new, imaginative and progressive ways of living and organising society. We must be ready to #BuildBackBetter;  for a future based on our movement’s collective ideas, understanding and experiences; for a future which rejects the Tories’ right-wing virus breeding ground of fragmented public services, greed and survival of the fittest, and is founded on genuine solidarity and socialism.

 

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Covid can’t wait – Brexit can

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Labour must demand a Brexit pause while we tackle Covid-19

Covid-19 has exposed the dysfunction at the heart of the British state after a decade of austerity. That dysfunction has been combined with an extreme right-wing ideology, meaning that we have a government utterly incapable of carrying out its primary function – protecting its citizens. This combination has already led to a litany of failures: the foot-dragging initial response; the refusal to follow World Health Organisation guidelines; the failure to requisition adequate and timely supplies and equipment; the adherence to the immoral ‘herd immunity’ policy favoured by eugenicists and elitists; and the current fetish with non-existent antibody tests to identify an immunity that, without a vaccine, has not been evidenced to exist.

Many have been duped by the Tories’ sudden embrace of public expenditure, but the small print shows that it is all smoke and mirrors. Loans and deferred VAT payments mean SMEs and the self-employed gain little other than a bit of time to pay. Waiting on the phone for hour to then wait another five weeks for a Universal Credit payment is no substitute for the immediacy and simplicity of universal basic income or helicopter payments. Statutory sick pay is not a living wage. Utility and rent bills have not been frozen. Thousands are still going to work in non-essential jobs because they have no choice. Mutual aid volunteers are being asked to pay for groceries as people run out of money.

At the end of the day, as with Donald Trump, Tory policies will always be determined by the bottom line – by stock market rather than fatality numbers. We know which side the Conservatives are really on in those ‘economy vs. people’s lives’ debates. We know that by ‘economy’, they mean profit – not our livelihoods, jobs and household bills. The UK’s departure from the EU’s Early Warning and Response System and European Medicines Agency, and the Tories’ refusal to be part of a 28-country purchasing block for ventilators are not just shameful; they exhibit a pig-headed anti-Europeanism and dangerous British exceptionalism that puts ideology before saving lives.

In these circumstances, Labour must be bold. In recent years, Labour was at its best and most popular when Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell showed clear and firm leadership. Their anti-austerity policies and the 2017 manifesto are prime examples of that. But Labour has also been at its weakest and least popular when clear leadership has not been forthcoming. The 2019 manifesto was as radical as that of 2017, but was always going to get swamped and ridiculed in an election dominated by Brexit. And here, instead of boldness and clarity, Corbyn’s triangulation and failure to challenge the nationalist and populist nature of the Brexit project was a major contributory factor to our defeat.

Keir Starmer has already demonstrated a moving empathy and understanding of the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on the poor and working class. Now he must also be bold on Brexit. The economic and social fallout from coronavirus will be more than most people can cope with, without adding the unnecessary and human-made disaster that the Tories’ preferred hard Brexit constitutes. Brexit and fighting Covid are now inextricably linked.

The UK will, by default, be trading on World Trade Organisation rules come 2021 if Labour does not demand the virtual reopening of parliament immediately after Easter to agree an extension to the transition arrangements. If it doesn’t, then this Brexiteer government – that just a couple of months ago thought Brexit bongs more important than confronting the deadly threat that they knew we faced – will be more than happy to allow the July deadline to pass unnoticed, just as it has already ensured that the important Windrush Report was buried by Covid-19. Whatever their position on Brexit, every Labour member should now be demanding the government press pause on Brexit and concentrates on saving lives. You can sign Labour for a Socialist Europe’s petition to that effect here.

The majority’s reaction to the crisis has demonstrated the power of community, of working together, of solidarity, of support for our key workers and the NHS. Where the government has failed to act, cash-strapped Labour councils have stepped into the breach magnificently, working with all sections of their local communities to feed and support everyone. Pop-up mutual aid groups have linked up with established voluntary organisations, small businesses have used their imaginations to find ways to help, online entertainment and education has transformed many people’s lives and enabled them to live in isolation.

Thousands of migrants, refugees and EU citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the Tory Brexiteers have instinctively and generously worked with their neighbours to build community support networks. These are the very same migrants who have been subjected to the Tories’ hostile environment, threatened with deportation, banned from receiving healthcare because of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rules, and who have been the first UK health workers to lose their lives to coronavirus.

We must not let this profoundly ideological Tory government continue to put lives at risk, nor to use this crisis as their opportunity to further right-wing projects. Labour needs to be offering a future in line with the community strengths and power of collective action that a new generation is discovering. More immediately, we must demand a pause to Brexit so that all of our collective efforts can be concentrated on fighting the pandemic. And once this is over, let’s make sure that we don’t go back to normal.

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This article was published in Labour List on 8 April 2020

https://labourlist.org/2020/04/labour-must-demand-a-brexit-pause-while-we-tackle-covid-19/

 

 

Kenneth W Gillman – 1937 to 2019

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Ken Gillman

 

I was unable to attend Ken’s funeral in Katonah, NY, USA on 21 December 2019 but I wrote a few words in his memory

 

Ken was my Big Brother. There were three children in our north London working class family, Ken – born a couple of years before the war, David the wartime baby, and me, the post-war baby boomer. Five years between each of us. Dad was a bricklayer – later to rise to master builder in charge of the site, Mum worked part-time in a local shop.

When Dad went off to war in 1943 (Mum always said that, despite being exempt as a builder, he enlisted then to get away from the new baby…..), Ken was told he was now the Man of the House, and he always took that responsibility very seriously, even after Dad’s return.

After the war, rebuilding London provided employment for Dad, and the three of us were able to flourish and grow with the support of the UK’s new welfare and education systems. All three of us were bright, clever kids who did well at school.

Ken and I were similar, inheriting our mother’s adventurous streak. In his late teens, after a stint as a tea taster in the City, Ken was conscripted to the Air Force for his national service, and I have fond memories of him taking me around the coffee bars of fifties’ Soho when he was home on leave. Mum wasn’t told he’d taken a 9 year old to one of the least salubrious parts of London – instead he’d come up with some story of a park or a gallery – but he engendered in me a love for wandering London’s back streets and people watching. Ken had a broad range of interests – cricket at Lords, the British Museum’s Reading Room, opera (I hated with a passion his repeated playing of Bellini’s ‘Norma’, much preferring David’s rock ‘n’ roll collection!), and he was skilled at seeming more cultured than his upbringing should have allowed. He would adopt names – for years everyone was told his middle name was Maxwell – and pretend backgrounds. I looked up to him – and quickly came to share his non-conformity and refusal to fit the mould.

When Ken brought Gisela and Gabi into our lives he shocked the narrow minds of a neighbourhood deeply infused with hatred of the recent enemy, but our parents stood up to them and this taught me respect for other nationalities. I went on to learn languages, including German, at school as a result of that experience. Ken had been stationed in Germany before the Berlin Wall went up, and he had friends in the East, even though as a national serviceman he was banned from going there. After the Wall came down, I sent him photos from the roof of the newly opened Reichstag so he could share the view.

During the late 60s, by which time I was grown and mingling with London’s artistic and political sub-cultures, and Ken had finally moved on from the Air Force, we lived near each other in Kensington. We’d graduated from coffee bars to restaurants by then, and Ken’s knowledge of good eating places meant we spent some enjoyable evenings together. The British taste for ‘foreign’ food was not as it is today, and we were fortunate to live in one of the few areas of the country where it was possible to taste a range of cuisines.

I missed him when he left London for New York. But he visited often enough for us to remain good friends; and we could go years without contact and then just pick things up as though it had been yesterday. Sometimes his visits were a surprise – without social media to tell others of your every move Ken would often visit our parents without contacting me – but I do remember him turning up one evening unannounced in Lambeth Town Hall in Brixton where I was a leading local councillor demanding to see me because a taxi driver had just told him it had been burnt down and he wanted to check for himself!

When my partner died in 2008 Ken and Wendy became a refuge for me, somewhere far away I could go to hide, to be looked after by my Big Brother. I was always his little sister, treated no differently to his children, hardly surprising given that the age difference between him and me is the same as it is between me and his eldest.

Ken will always be my Big Brother, and I will miss him.

Joan

 

Ken’s obituary was published in the New York Times on 19 December 2019

 

GILLMAN–Kenneth, 82, of Goldens Bridge, New York, passed away peacefully on Sunday, December 15, 2019. Born on June 7, 1937 in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England, Ken was the elder son of the late Dorothy and Walter Gillman. A veteran of the Royal Air Force, he worked as a statistician at the Electricity Council of London, the British Ministry of Defense, and the London office of Reader’s Digest. Ken eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked in the Pleasantville office of Reader’s Digest until 1984. He then founded Considerations, Inc., which provided global direct mail consulting and regression services. He was President of Considerations, Inc. until his retirement in 2002. From 1983 to 2006, Ken was also the editor-publisher of the quarterly astrological publication, Considerations. In 2009, he authored One After Another, which examined rectification and prediction using planetary sequences. Ken is survived by his wife of 35 years, Dr. Wendy Robinson Gillman, his children, Gabrielle, Noah, O’Dhaniel (Julia), and Michael (Ellen), grandchildren, Natalie, Seri, and Imogen, sister, Joan Twelves, and nephew, Timothy (Nicole). He was predeceased by his brother, David. Ken will be remembered by family and friends for his brilliant mind, quiet disposition, love of nature, and dedication to his family. Family and friends will gather at Clark Associates Funeral Home, 4 Woods Bridge Road, Katonah, NY 10536 on Saturday, December 21st, from 1 to 4pm, with the memorial service starting at 2:00 at the funeral home.

 
 
 

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Rare family get together in London: Joan, Nicole, Tim, Ken, Michael, O’Dhaniel, Noah
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Wendy, Michael + Ken
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Ken, Michael + Joan

Remembering Greg

Incredibly, it’s ten years since we interred (or, as I prefer to say, planted) Greg’s ashes in the Flower Garden in Kennington Park. We also planted a couple of trees and a bench. It is fitting that the Flower Garden has just received Gold in the London in Bloom competition.

The event was attended by close to a hundred of Greg’s comrades and friends, including the late Bob Crow and our People’s Chancellor, John McDonnell. John and my speeches can be found here.

We both referred to the 2008 financial crash and the likelihood that the world was heading for depression and impoverishment. The next decade of neo-liberal austerity policies as the ruling elite has sought (sadly, all too successfully) to recoup their losses and pile the cost and blame for their reckless greed onto workers across the world has been worse than we foresaw. And we definitely did not foresee the amazing rise of our – and Greg’s – friend, Jeremy Corbyn, to the Leadership of now the largest socialist Party in western Europe; nor, in stark opposition to our fight for socialism, the rise of racist and fascist forces across Europe and the USA. Despite his leading role in the RMT, Greg would have been no fan of Brexit – not even of the mythical Lexit. He was an internationalist and anti-racist through and through, and would have instantly grasped the dangers and anti-working class nature of the right-wing Tory project based on so-called free trade, deregulation and privatisation – as Jeremy said last week, their dream of returning to the dark ages of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and waived the rules.

He is sorely missed.

Here’s some pictures

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Greg (2)_edited

 

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Greg’s tree 10 years on

2005-08-27 18.59.11

The Perfect Storm II – How the Carnival of Reaction is Turning the World Upside Down

How the Carnival of Reaction is Turning the World Upside Down

 A far too long a read…..

[Part I – It’s the Perfect Storm for a Carnival of Reaction can be found here]

 “Victory for the Leavers will be a victory of racist reactionaries and those who want to divide us”

“When hatred is preached, when bigotry is legitimised, then that gives permission for hate and bigotry to become commonplace, to become acceptable.”

I wrote that more than two months ago and I take no pleasure in having been proved right. Weeks after the Referendum and the Perfect Storm hasn’t finished its work.

The roller coaster is still in motion. The political plates have shifted. The world is turning upside down.*

A campaign based on falsehoods and lies, on racism and fear, is claiming its victims.

There was a 57% spike in reported hate crimes in the first 10 days after the Referendum.

The media report the statistics and the more horrendous of the attacks. But the everyday bigotry – the looks, the mutters, that feeling of a shift in community cohesion, the suspicions of neighbours, a sense that we don’t have to make everybody welcome any more – that goes unreported. But it’s there. It’s real. And as it becomes commonplace so it’s no longer newsworthy.

The murder of Jo Cox has been all but forgotten. The unprecedented political assassination of a Labour MP by a right-wing extremist has been brushed under the carpet.

We should be enraged that this has been allowed to happen, that the media have been allowed to move on, that Nigel Farage was allowed to say “We have done it …without a single bullet being fired” just a short week after Jo Cox’s murder, with barely a voice raised in criticism or condemnation.

The referendum campaign didn’t just condone violence and hatred. Its tone coarsened our political discourse – just as the tone of the Trump campaign in the US has coarsened it there. A Breaking Point poster here; an “I’d like to punch you in the face” there. It has allowed insulting those with whom we disagree whether within political parties or society at large to become routine and unchallenged, particularly on social media.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly argued for a kinder form of politics, where we respect the other person’s point of view. But most of us aren’t very good at sticking to that and none of us is immune from the prevailing mood and tone of our society. I’m certainly not. But we can change that. And we must, starting with challenging and condemning all threats, abuse and intimidation. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of threats and abuse in my time I know how nasty things can get, how it can quickly get out of hand, how charge and counter-charge can escalate until the truth vanishes; but, while we can challenge and condemn where we have some influence, let’s not forget where the perpetrators of such threats and abuse are most commonly to be found – in the ranks of the far right. They are the ones who issue death threats. They are the murderers and assassins. They are the ones whose ideology is based on political violence. They are the ones who are delighting in the current political turmoil.

We should be enraged that the petty ambitions of a small group of political charlatans who whipped up the lies and falsehoods we witnessed throughout the campaign have resulted in a generation of young people in tears of anger and despair as they watch their plans and aspirations disappear, their ambitions restricted to the confines of a small island off the continental mass looking backwards to an imperial past and a much smaller world.

The speed at which our society has gone from one of tolerance and diversity to narrow-mindedness and fear has been breath-taking.

I am of the generation which predominantly voted Leave. But I don’t understand them. I have rejoiced as my life has moved from the limitations of the grey post-war fifties to one where horizons expanded, technology raced forward, the marvellous blue planet we first saw from space in 1968 became accessible, where all cultures and races could come together. The corruptions and exploitation of global capitalism and corporatism notwithstanding, how anyone can want to narrow their horizons, build walls and barriers, is beyond me. Being part of the EU isn’t about being part of a capitalist trading bloc; it’s about being part of the wider world and being able to use that trading bloc as a cultural and social stepping stone to building a better world.

As I’ve said before, revolutions can come from the right not just the left. And that is what is happening. And it’s not good. Right-wing Tories have thrown all aspects of our lives up into the air. And not just ours. The decision of the UK to leave one of the most important trade blocs in the world will deliver a seismic political and economic shock to the global economy over coming months.

A prime minister has been brought down: a chancer who took one risk too many lost big-time. The rabble-rouser-in-chief has gone on holiday to cultivate his moustache. The rest of the demagogues who played to the crowd have either run from the scene or been swept aside – with some told to work out how to clear up their Eton Mess, others sent home with just a large ministerial payoff to help them get through those long summer days of gardening leave, and the Clown to the exile of the Naughty Step – or, as it used to be known in the days of pomp and circumstance, when Britain ruled the waves, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

And 172 Labour MPs chose this moment to go on strike and trigger a contest for the Party’s leadership.

We now face the most right-wing government we have seen for decades – and I say this as someone who lived through the Thatcher years, fighting her every inch of the way. The Tory Party may have backed away from allowing its membership to elect the hard right’s candidate, Andrea Leadsom, but it is that hard right who are in control. Warm words about ‘a country that works for everyone’ are as meaningless as ‘we’re all in it together’ were. They are the words of a Tory, and Tories always know which class they are in government to protect and serve. If it’s to work for everyone, Mrs May, then where’s the restoration of welfare cuts? The additional NHS and local government funding? The repeal of the Housing Act? The abolition of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap? The end of zero-hours contracts? Are you going to give back all those stolen mobility cars and scooters? Will schools be restored to local democratic control? Will Philip Hammond cut VAT or will it be corporation tax? And can we keep our human rights, please?

Instead, as Brexit means Brexit (does anyone know what that means?), so the economists’ predictions are coming to pass – Project Fear wasn’t a fantasy, it was Project Fact. The pound has plummeted, prices are rising, jobs are starting to disappear as investors look elsewhere, factories and corporations are looking around for more amenable – more profitable – locations, foreign holidays and flights already cost more. And, irony of ironies, farmers warn of a dearth of British fruit and vegetables. Kent apples will rot on the trees while we pay more for French Golden Delicious! Painful as it is to say, George Osborne’s warning of a self-imposed recession, of economic suicide, was no bluff. And let’s make no mistake – the people who will suffer from that recession, who suffer from any recession, those who will lose their jobs and be unable to pay the rent and will watch helpless as the NHS and our other public services are cut and cut and cut again, as the libraries and play centres and parks disappear to be replaced by the property developers’ and asset strippers’ glass towers, and whose benefits and pensions will be cut more and more, will be those people whose lives have already been so blighted by deindustrialisation, globalisation and austerity that they despair of politicians ever making any difference to their lives other than to make them worse, and believe that leaving the EU (and sending the immigrants back) will give them control over their lives.

It is clear that nobody – not the Tory Leavers or Remainers, nor any wing of Labour, nor the civil service, nor the think-tankers, nor the City financiers, nor the British Establishment, not even Sir Humphrey – has a real plan of what to do next because nobody thought it would happen. Commentators and economists are producing disparate to-do lists based on wild guesses. What trade relationships, if any, does the government want with the EU? How impenetrable will the immigration barriers be? Human beings are being used as bargaining chips – we’ll let your Polish plumbers stay as long as you keep our Costa del Sol ex-pats and take back those Bulgarian Romani families – like a stack of divorcees’ CDs, as pawns in their game. The Tories may have covered up their divide for the time being but this does not mean that the fault line between their modern-day Peels and Disraelis has suddenly healed over. Whether it re-emerges by the time of their Party Conference is yet to be seen. At the moment minor turf war squabbles seem to be the order of the day. But Mrs May is going to have to spell out her position very soon. August doesn’t last for ever.

So, has Labour seized the opportunity of this Tory-generated disaster to take the lead? Like hell it has!

The temptation to write about the Leadership campaign is great but I want to restrict myself to the implications of the Brexit vote. But I must just say, firstly, that, like most ordinary Party members, I am enraged that the Tories have been gifted this distraction, thereby allowing them to realign themselves and keep a tight and ruthless grip on power; secondly, that I believe that those forces within the Labour Party wedded to neoliberalism will not easily cede power or control – despite all the evidence from across Europe and the developed world that, at a time of the kind of political polarisation we have experienced since the 2008 crash, centrist social democracy will struggle to survive (as James Galbraith puts it “The center-left cannot hold; its day is past.”); and, thirdly,  that I believe the current Leadership contest will not resolve matters. I am not alone in thinking this (see Paul MasonEvery signal from the Labour right appears to point towards a second coup against Corbyn, once he wins the leadership election, which will make Owen Smith’s current effort look like a sideshow.” )

Because Corbyn’s opponents used his less than passionately fluent performance during the Referendum campaign as a hook on which to hang their rebellion, he has been pushed onto the back foot over Brexit. It is essential both for his campaign and for the electoral future of the Labour Party that he seizes the initiative, pushes the issue to the fore and stops allowing Smith to make all the running on it, by using the remaining rallies and hustings of the Leadership contest to set out what Labour’s clear and principled positions must be.

The balancing act for any Labour leader at the moment is to bridge the gulf between the urban, educated, young Remainers, whose support will be crucial if Labour is to speedily return to government, and the alienated Leavers in Labour’s mainly northern heartlands – the ‘left behinders’. We have a duty not to turn our backs on them and hand them over to the forces of UKIP reaction – which getting it wrong will do.

Although it was elderly, middle class, Tory suburbanites who provided the core of Leave voters, it is undeniable that the vote exposed the profound alienation felt by millions of working class families, an alienation that has its roots in the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years and the globalisation of the 90s, in the neoliberal policies embedded under Thatcher and followed on through the New Labour years, policies pursued in one shape or another across the world, including by the majority right-wing governments across the European Union.

We see its effects in the rise of inequality, the destruction of the NHS through cuts, privatisation and PFI debts, the failure to build public housing, the disintegration of our community education system and our universities, the shocking employment practices which have been allowed to spread and the drip drip drip attacks on benefit claimants, people with disabilities and migrants.

And we see its result in the resonance the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan had on the vote.

Corbyn’s Ten Pledges are clearly seeking to address that alienation by developing the basis of a strategic vision to rebuild and transform Britain. But they need to be linked to Brexit – spelling out how major policies such as those on climate change and taking action on tax avoidance still need to be cross-European, emphasising the links with socialist and progressive forces across the EU and stressing that international solidarity starts with our closest neighbours. Campaigning speeches are more than just rallying calls; they are the source of political education for a whole new generation, and not mentioning Brexit is a missed opportunity, it is selling young people short not to even mention one of the most defining moments in recent political history, one which will have such a profound effect on their lives.

As a passionate, albeit not uncritical, Remainer I emotionally responded to the calls for a Second Referendum in the days following the result – after all, the people had been lied to, conned, treated with contempt by hard right populist charlatans. But that is insulting and patronising to all those working class people who so desperately want nothing more than a decent and dignified life for themselves and their families.

Owen Smith’s current call for a Second Referendum, while initially attractive, at the end of the day carries little credibility because while, he says it should be on the basis of the outcome of negotiations, he doesn’t say on what basis those negotiations should take place. They are negotiations that will be carried out by the Tories, by the Tory hard right. What are his demands, his red lines, his principles? He is startlingly uncritical of the European Union. What are his views on its democratic deficit, its austerity punishment of Greece, its attitude to refugees, on TTIP? Millions of young Remainers support free movement; millions of Leavers oppose it. What is Smith’s position? The hard right are demanding reduced tariff regulations, markets opened up to cheap Chinese imports, trade deals giving corporations preferential rights and powers. Where does Smith stand? Analysis of the Leave vote, particularly in working class areas, shows that, although immigration is frequently raised, in fact the more pertinent ZZ3A70FB71-300x290issue is one of control. Does he recognise that hostility to immigration is but a symptom of that deep alienation, or does he see it as the problem to be sorted using limits and controls? I have listened closely to what he has said and searched his website but his Twenty Pledges include not one reference to the EU and no promise of that Second Referendum, let alone on what basis he would negotiate. I find this strange for someone who likes to declare his passion for the EU at every televised opportunity. Perhaps his sponsors do not share his enthusiasm?

Putting himself forward as a potential leader more in tune with the political views of the British public than Jeremy Corbyn, he seems to be poorly attuned to the way political and social currents ebb and flow – indeed, despite his own, one must assume, hyper-energetic campaigning for Remain, a majority in his own area voted to Leave. So exactly how does he plan to win that Second Referendum? It would be good to know. Because what is the point of it now unless you know you are going to win next time? And that means understanding and addressing the reasons why people voted the way they did in June.

While I would like to see much more detail and a specific pledge in respect of the Brexit negotiations, Corbyn’s Ten Pledges do at least include the following commitments:

  • We will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.
  • We will defend and extend the environmental protections gained from the EU.
  • We will guarantee full rights for EU citizens living and working in Britain – and not allow them to be used as pawns in Brexit negotiations.

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Now he has to put flesh on them, including demanding places at the negotiating table for Labour, the devolved nations, London and the TUC.

John McDonnell spelt out five economic red lines in a speech on 1 July:

  • First, our aim must be to ensure freedom of trade for UK businesses in the EU, and freedom of trade for EU businesses in the UK.
  • Second, no EU citizen currently living or working in the UK will have their residency rights affected. No UK citizen currently living or working in the EU will have their rights affected.
  • Third, existing protections at work provided by the EU must be maintained.
  • Fourth, the UK’s role in the European Investment Bank should be maintained.
  • And fifth, the rights of UK financial services companies to win business across the EU must be maintained.

Any path through the negotiations that does not respect these guidelines will be liable to have severe consequences for jobs and protections at work.

Again, flesh is needed, in particular a much stronger commitment to the free movement of people because, notwithstanding what I have said earlier about concerns about immigration being but a symptom, the main thrust of the hard right’s Leave campaign was around migration, their red negotiating lines will undoubtedly be around this issue, and Labour – particularly the Corbyn supporting left – must take a firm unequivocal line on this. Otherwise we are giving in to the xenophobes and bigots of Reaction’s Carnival rather than challenging them at every opportunity.

In fact, it will be impossible for the UK to meet McDonnell’s red lines without endorsing all the EU’s four freedoms –  the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – and this needs to be spelt out. These freedoms are fundamental not just to membership of the EU but also of the European Economic Area (the EEA), many left commentators’ fall-back position as the least worse option even though it means having no voice (neither MEPs nor ministerial) in decisions with which the UK will have to comply and pay towards.

I also think it’s important that Corbyn addresses many of the non-economic issues which are so central to why young Remainers feel their lives have been irrevocably changed for the worse and why so many of us perceive Brexit as a retreat from the world. Many of these are small – such as the cheap flights and those health insurance cards which enable us Brits to be those health tourists we so deride; others much more substantial – the Erasmus student exchange programme, academic, scientific and medical research (and not just the funding, the more important cross-European collaboration), cultural interactions of all sorts, the implications for Scotland and Northern Ireland, not just employment rights but also human rights, environmental agreements and action around climate change.

The Brexit vote has to be put in context. We live in a globalised world and, much as many little Englanders may wish to avoid it in much the same way as US survivalists do, we are not immune from what happens elsewhere – and a lot can happen across Europe let alone the rest of the world in the next two or three years which will make any decisions taken now irrelevant – next year’s German, Dutch and French elections for starters. The reality is that, whatever the triumvirate of Tory Brexiteers may say, the pre-negotiations to the formal negotiations of article 50 will not start until after those elections have taken place.

We Brits have become so inward looking we rarely take regard of the potential impact of Brexit on the EU itself. Already in crisis as the effects of its neoliberal policies alienate its citizens and as it grapples with the greatest movement of refugees and migrants since the end of WW2, nothing about the EU can be predicted with any certainty. To what extent can the ‘contagion’ from Brexit be contained? What effect will it have on the future of the Euro? Will it be the impetus that forces democratisation or will the Eurozone collapse under the weight of its own contradictions?

All this means it is far too early to know what approach to how we relate to the EU and to the rest of the world will be the way forward – and certainly what form the decision-making on that should take.

But one thing we do know. Populism and right-wing forces are on the march across Europe. The future is dark if they are not stopped. Labour’s approach to Brexit can play a large part in what happens next if we get it right. And that means having the right principles, policies and approach.

Labour’s membership has grown rapidly under Corbyn’s leadership. It has the potential to become a mass movement, linking up with socialist parties and progressive movements across Europe not just to challenge the despair and alienation neoliberalism’s austerity has brought to millions but to do something about it. Whether Corbyn and the left can seize the moment is a moot point. But together we can be stronger. Together we are stronger. Another Europe is possible – a better world is possible – so let’s not mess it up!

* The World Turned Upside Down is a phrase and song associated with the Diggers and the Levellers – our radical forebears. It’s appropriate here – but let’s not leave it in the hands of the forces of reaction. Let’s stop the right-wing revolution in its tracks.

It’s the Perfect Storm for a Carnival of Reaction

It’s the Perfect Storm for a Carnival of Reaction – or why we must Vote Remain and Stay in Europe to Change Europe!

A few weeks ago I started writing about the importance of the outcome of the EU referendum for housing campaigners

– about how the lack of affordable housing and the ultra-rich’s unoccupied luxury apartments blighting our inner cities had nothing to do with the European Union or migrants and everything to do with successive governments refusing to adequately plan population shifts and growth, and to prefer to pander to property speculators, finance capitalists and the myth of home ownership rather than build and maintain affordable public housing where it was needed and wanted

– how the Blair/Brown governments’ insistence that council housing be transferred away from local authority control before it could be renovated paved the way for property developers to muscle their way into local authority decision making, thus leading to the current obsession with demolishing and semi-privatising estates in the name of regeneration

13233133_1625051841148756_4831405392388545407_nhow closing borders would not change the Housing Act’s destruction of social housing and social cleansing

– how EU rules and regulations did not prevent rent controls, and

– how it would only be through a radical change of government to one which supported and encouraged public housing would we even begin to see a change.

But I was busy organising campaigning for an IN vote and didn’t get very far with that, so I then started writing about how not talking about the Wars was one of the elephants in the referendum debate and that there were lots of Wars we should be talking about, starting with the Second World War, and

 how it was in the aftermath of that bloody conflagration that six countries had first come together to declare Never Again! and find ways to regulate trade between themselves

– how capitalism thrives on conflict and competition and war and, yes, the EU is a bosses’ club, a capitalist cartel, a bourgeois institution, but that nevertheless it had found a way for a continent of nation states which throughout their existence had been at near continuous war to cohabit the same space without throwing punches – or firing missiles – at each other for over half a century

– how, while that had not prevented intranational independence struggles such as the Six Counties’ Troubles or the Basque conflict or demands for Catalan autonomy, or bloody wars on its borders such as those which erupted as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated and, more currently, Ukraine, it was something we needed to recognise and appreciate and talk about, not shrug our shoulders and assume peace was inevitable

– how the ending of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, had allowed right wing governments to rapidly absorb the assets, resources and people of the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe into the EU, enriching themselves and their favoured oligarchs through the wholesale expropriation of whole countries’ assets, and how their beloved free movement of capital by necessity has to be accompanied by the free movement of labour and that it has only been where trade unions and the labour movement is strong, and where it can come together across nation boundaries, that capital will be restricted from exploiting that labour to the extent it otherwise would

– how together we are stronger

– how Bush and Blair’s Wars opened the door for the current conflagrations across the Middle East and consequential refugee and migrant crises

– how people do not risk all to reach the comparative safety of EU countries unless they are desperate and fleeing for their lives

– how migration is a normal part of human existence and needs to be recognised and planned for, not blocked and banned

– how Fortress Europe policies have not just caused untold human misery and death but encouraged the growth of right wing movements across every country

– how migrants and refugees are human beings with needs and desires and rights….

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And then I thought I couldn’t write about Wars without writing about the Class War….

But Janine Booth, the left’s wonderful poet, has put that far more succinctly than I can –

REFERENDUM GUIDANCE

Finding your decision tough?

Remember where the war is.

Don’t blame migrants for the stuff

That’s mostly caused by Tories

So, while I wasn’t getting very far with my writing (described the other day as not just slow, but glacial) I was talking, and I was talking about

– democracy and the lack of it in the UK and climate change having no borders and how the EU’s redistribution from the richer to the poorer regions should be supported (we do not want our money back!) and human rights and workers’ rights and how there was no Exit Left, no Lexit, that it was an illusion that somehow leaving the EU would open up opportunities for the Left, that Boris and Gove and Farage were not the Lenin, Trotsky and Mao of our time and would not do what groups like the SWP and the SP and the CP had singularly failed to do over the last however many years they’ve been fighting Labourism and trying to get the British working class to rise up and follow their particular vanguardist sect

– and about how my enthusiasm for campaigning for an IN vote wasn’t just about the positives but also about the negatives and how we need to change Europe and the world for the better

AEIP

– but most fundamentally it was about how the way this debate wasn’t actually about the EU at all, but about migration and immigration and benefit scroungers, and that if the UK voted to leave the EU then that would mean that a majority of the people of this country had been conned by a nasty, right-wing, racist campaign based on falsehoods and downright lies, which could lead to one of the most hard right governments we had ever seen in this country

– how the Leave campaign and their friends in the right-wing press were capitalising on working class disillusionment and alienation, in particular in those areas deindustrialised by Thatcher and neglected by the neo-liberal policies pursued by both Labour and Tory governments for the last 30 odd years, which had been exacerbated since the 2008 crash by Tory austerity leading amongst other things to a massive shift of wealth from the poor to the already rich and enormously increased inequality, and whipping up resentment towards, not the rich, but those who could be characterised as ‘alien’, ‘the other’, ‘different’. As Yanis Varoufakis has said:

“Lest we forget, turning the native poor against the migrants is a variant of the maxresdefaultold divide-and-rule trick that the British establishment honed ages ago to dominate the empire. Today it uses the same strategy to dominate the domestic “natives”, hide austerity’s effects, and deflect anger toward the other – the foreigner, the migrant”

– how during its years in government Labour lost touch with its heartlands, first in Scotland and now across swathes of the north, by failing to defend or be perceived to be on the side of the working class, and

– how the UK leaving the EU will have implications across Europe not just in terms of the future of the EU but because it will signal the legitimacy and acceptance of far right policies which will be rapidly taken up by those forces already on the march across the continent.

CjXbBycUYAUbBIGFor the hard right – who had already scored a victory by forcing the referendum in the first place – it has become the Perfect Storm

– with anti-immigrant and anti-migrant feelings running high across Europe (the Tories’ xenophobic London Mayoral campaign may not have worked in metropolitan London but it would have resonated elsewhere, and yesterday’s election of a Five Star Mayor in Rome has to be added to the mix),

– the government rapidly forcing through draconian anti-working class policies on housing, education, health and benefits as they seek to destroy the welfare state and privatise our public services,

– the EU in crisis over its panicked and cruel mishandling of the increasing number of desperate refugees running from bombs and hunger,

– the electorates of Spain and Portugal rejecting austerity in favour of newly emerging parties of the left,

– the failure of neo-liberal policies to protect Greece or create the growth needed to sustain the original social democratic project of a social Europe

– and here  – the Labour Party’s opposition to all this weak and divided (sorry Jeremy!).

The hard right have been allowed to dictate the agenda and the terms of the debate.

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They have been aided and abetted by the tabloids daily dose of front pages depicting marauding, swarming migrants and the rest of the media’s failure to challenge their lies. They have been aided and abetted by the BBC’s notion of ‘balance’ being to allow charlatans to challenge all and every statement about the EU (even to the extent of reputable academics being denigrated for receiving funding from the EU as though it’s some kind of mafia outfit) and to encourage a form of anti-intellectualism to permeate discussions under the guise of ‘anti-establishmentism’ – “kill all the experts!”. They have been aided and abetted by social media enabling them to spread their lies around the world before the truth has had time to even start looking for her knickers. They have been aided and abetted by a refusal from other politicians, with a very few honourable paddington_poster2-687x1024and unpublicised exceptions, to call them out on their racism and to support free movement and to welcome migrants and refugees. Xenophobia has become acceptable and a discussion that should be about humanity, decency, empathy has degenerated into a numbers game.

 

And then Jo Cox was murdered.13475190_1093160037457480_5031415154254392630_o

Killed by a fascist extremist.

A British Labour MP assassinated by a Nazi.

 

Now I can’t just write. I need to rant. I need to scream.

That Perfect Storm has whirled into a Carnival of Reaction before one vote has been counted.

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The politicians have frozen. Campaigning suspended. Except it’s not. How can it be? The storm is rising still.

The lone wolf with ‘mental health issues’ (since when has epilepsy been a ‘mental health issue’? as my favourite person with epilepsy would say: “that really is fuckwittery gone mad”) is fast turning into the ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’ neo-Nazi lone wolf with ‘mental health issues’ who may have held the occasional Britain First banner mair-bf-1and may have been on Farage’s contact list, but “nuffink to do with us, guv”. Let’s lay a wreath and pretend nobody saw it coming. Pretend it’s the fault of the foreigners, the migrants. They’re the ones who whipped up the storm, not us, not the Sun, the Mail, the Express, with their daily headlines of thousands and thousands of migrants (not to forget the 75 million Turks) heading our way, not the Today programme, not Cameron smearing Sadiq Khan one week and crying crocodile tears the next. It’s their fault for trying to come here. “Nuffink to do with us, guv.”

Except it is. Because when hatred is preached, when bigotry is legitimised, then that gives permission for hate and bigotry to become commonplace, to become acceptable – and for murder and assassination to be carried out in their name.

Brendan Cox – in the midst of his grief – has beautifully articulated what is happening “Petrified by the rise of the populists, [mainstream politicians] try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric. Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise their views….” and “All this has meant that the populist right have shifted the politics and the public debate of the issue far more that their actual numbers dictate.” (Guardian, 18 June 2016)

Societal change can take place very quickly – after all, that’s what happens when there’s a revolution. But revolutions can come from the right, not just the left.

Ballot box

Voting on Thursday may not seem a big deal – after all, we’re only voting on whether or not this country should be part of a trading bloc, a capitalist trading bloc pursuing neo-liberal, austerity policies, a group of nation states which we’ve only ever been half-heartedly part of anyway, and about which there are lots of reasonable arguments either way – and it wouldn’t have been a big deal if we’d actually debated the pros and cons of EU membership in a reasonable way. But we haven’t. We haven’t had a debate. We’ve had an angry tirade of vitriol. We’ve had lies and exaggerations and threats. And, in response, we’ve had an incoherent splutter of rage.

As a consequence, the symbolism of what will be decided on Thursday is enormous. Victory for the Leavers will be the victory of racist reactionaries and those who want to divide us – it will mean a Carnival of Reaction.

Winning Remain even by the slightest margin won’t be a victory – the racists and reactionaries aren’t going to melt into thin air on Friday morning. But the fact that a majority – even a majority of one – have turned their backs on that Carnival of Reaction means we will have a way forward if we have the strength and determination to seize it. Please, please vote Remain on Thursday and support the fight for a better world, another Europe, a better Europe.

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Another Europe is Possible is at http://www.anothereurope.org