By Anna Willmott
Something has gone tragically wrong in the UK. We have the worst recorded Coronavirus death rate in the world. Over 65,000 excess deaths have been recorded. Since the pandemic hit, 70% (at least) fewer people have been diagnosed with cancer. This means there is an estimated backlog of 100,000 undiagnosed or untreated cancer cases, a figure which grows by around 5,000 a week. We can’t change the past, but we must change the future.
We in the Labour Party have being doing what we can to support the government in tackling the Covid crisis. The local community has done valuable work within various community groups and charities. Volunteers have helped hundreds of people self-isolating and shielding, as well as those who, at this time, are tragically unable to afford essential food and supplies We are also so grateful to everyone who has made huge personal sacrifices, including those who have gone through awful and lonely grief, but have stayed at home for the common social good. Nationally, Keir Starmer has offered to meet to help build consensus, but has had no reply.
The Government’s “Our Plan to rebuild” published on the 11th May, acknowledged that “So far people have adhered to the [lockdown] measures well… However, to avoid R tipping above 1 and the epidemic increasing in an uncontrolled manner, very high continued levels of compliance are essential. The risk is an unbalanced one; if the UK tips back into an exponential increase in the spread of the infection, it could quickly get out of control.” The reported R rate is currently between 0.7 and 0.9, with strong indications that it is above 1 in some parts of the country such as the North West.
Firstly, for or this to happen, those in government must be open to scrutiny and held to account by Parliament, the media, the public, and opposition parties. This collaborative approach of checks and balances is also fundamental to our democracy. We therefore ask that you respect this democratic process of scrutiny by reconsidering closing down your Facebook page, blocking comments on your twitter feed, and preventing some constituents from viewing your tweets. We also ask that the Government stop barring journalists, such as the Times, from press briefings, for asking the ‘wrong’ questions that raised ‘inconvenient facts’. No one from the government has appeared on Channel 4 News for three weeks, and for the entire week they have not been given the opportunity to ask a question at the press conference. We ask that the Government to stop avoiding established Parliamentary scrutiny and media scrutiny by making announcements on a Sunday, and only taking selected, pre-recorded questions from the public. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, was right when he said “Ministers have a duty to report first to this House when major changes of policy are announced,”, while reprimanding Rishi Sunak for announcing his plans to the media, before telling MPs. We ask that the Government start to collaborate with leaders of the devolved nations, to prevent further confusion and to make sure that the UK is working effectively and efficiently to combat this pandemic, together.
Secondly, the public must have confidence and trust in the information, guidance, and instruction provided by the government. Approval of the government’s handling of coronavirus has sunk to its lowest level, with 56% of Britain’s now assessing the government to have been doing a bad job, and only 41% believing it has done a good job. Yet Boris Johnson says he is “very proud” of his governments coronavirus response.
We are deeply concerned about this disconnect and loss of trust in the government. Polling indicates 2 out of 3 people believe Cummings should be sacked, yet he has received the backing of the vast majority of Conservative MPs, including yourself. Even Durham Police contradicted Downing Street’s claim about Cummings. The only response you have is that people should “move on”, but the matter is not resolved, and the indefensible decision not to sack Cummings has had a demoralizing, divisive and dangerous effect throughout the country. A member of SPI-B (advisors to SAGE), Professor Robert West, said:
“When people see something like the Cummings affair… that’s not a recipe for trust…. Put all this together and you have a huge risk, (and it’s not just me saying that) that there will be an increase in infection rates. The government is not taking its responsibilities for political leadership seriously…. This should not be treated as a political crisis but as a health crisis: if you treat it as a political crisis it’s all about managing your reputation; if you treat it as a health crisis it’s about saving lives.”
We ask: Why is this Government ignoring common sense and the direction of its own scientific advisors? Why is the job of one man who has set a terribly bad example by breaking his own rules when visiting Barnard Castle, being placed above the lives and livelihoods of UK citizens? The Prime Minister should show leadership by asking Mr Cummings to consider his position. He must go now. In six months it will be too late to save countless lives.
Trust in government information has been further eroded by the UK Statistics Authority having to take the unprecedented action of writing to Matt Hancock twice to bring his attention to his communication of “misleading” data presentation that risks a negative knock-on effect on the Track and Trace system and finding our way out of lockdown. Dido Harding, head of the Track and Trace system told MPs the system won’t be fully operational at local level until the end of June. It is difficult to have confidence in the government’s capacity to address the covid crisis when we were promised by Boris Johnson that a “world beating” system would be fully operational by the 1st June. In a leaked email, we have now learnt it will actually be September. For Track and Trace to be an effective part of our exit strategy, there must be public confidence in its use. The choice of Dido Harding is reckless and provocative. Are you aware that she is the wife of a Conservative MP; that she is on the board of the Jockey Club who own Cheltenham racecourse where the virus was allowed to spread; and that she was Chief Executive of Talk Talk when the company got hacked? As Rachel Reeves has outlined in her letter to the government about Track and Trace, we need clarity about why and how Serco came to be awarded this contract. And we need reassurances that contact tracing is in safe hands with Serco, given the previous Serious Fraud Office’s 2019 investigation into the company, and its lamentable performance on a number of its existing contracts. By snubbing local expertise in favour of private tracing it seems that the government has missed another opportunity to engage local communities as politics overrides public safety.
Thirdly, policy must be supported by the science and communicated to relevant bodies and the public clearly and consistently. Without this, we are in danger of entering a second wave, even before we have fully emerged from the first.
In response to lockdown being lifted, SAGE advisors said “That’s clearly a political decision. It’s not a scientific decision”. The BMA said “the ‘road map out of lockdown’ is too fast, too confusing and too risky”. NEU, BMA, and scientists both part of the SAGE and independent SAGE group agree it was not safe to re-open schools on 1st June. In order to regain trust, we urge the government to listen, publish the scientific advice on which it claims its decisions are based, and be fully transparent about the information it receives from SAGE.
An ONS study estimates that only around 1 in 15 people have so far had the virus. According to the Government “There is no strong evidence yet to suggest that those who have been proven to have had the virus and to have produced antibodies are immune”. With no guarantee of a treatment or vaccine anytime soon, it is reckless and irresponsible to underestimate the potential of further damage by this virus. Surely we must hope for the best, but plan for the worst on the basis of a precautionary principle with regard to timely introduction of measures for controlling the virus.
The government needs to give consistent messaging. The Prime Minister says we are still at Covid alert level 4 (indications are that all 4 chief medical officers vetoed the governments desire to lower it), yet the government has advised people who were shielding that it is now safe to go out. Government advice said this would only happen when we reached alert level 1. Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK has challenged the Government’s approach, saying: “The way it has announced this on a Saturday night, with no warning or consultation with charities and clinicians, has created confusion, and this adds to the impression already created that the shielding group isn’t high enough on its list of priorities.”. This is alarming and damning.
Tragically, Sir David King, former government chief scientific advisor believes ‘40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if government had acted responsibly’. The BMJ argue the UK’s response to covid-19 was “too little, too late, too flawed”. The timeline of events since the pandemic first hit is truly appalling. Part of this was detailed in an article in the Times. It reports that Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus; calls to order protective gear were ignored; and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. The failure of Conservative governments to respond to the findings and recommendations of operation Cygnus in 2016 have resulted in the devasting effects associated with the handling of the crisis within our care homes.
While people living elsewhere in the world, with much lower infection rates, are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel, those living in the UK are feeling far less optimistic, falsely believing it is now a choice between saving lives, and saving the economy. Yet, as an article in the Financial Times says, “Maintaining the lockdown and saving the economy are mutually compatible” and a modelling study has found that removing coronavirus restrictions too quickly and having to reintroduce lockdowns will be worse for the global economy than gradually easing restrictions.
We can’t change the past, but we must change the future. There are tens of thousands of lives at stake as well as an economy to rebuild. Proper scrutiny of government, trust, and good communication are needed now more than ever.