England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Understanding Leicester’s Lockdown: A Tale of Tory Chaos

Full lockdown of the economy is controversial and damaging in a variety of ways and most people would agree that it should only be undertaken when the available scientific evidence suggests that it is unavoidable. During the early stages of this ongoing pandemic the Tories tried to push forward with what was widely held to be a reckless “herd immunity” approach, but when it became evident that this approach would result in a massive number of deaths and the total overloading of our health services, the Tories implemented a lockdown.

What is most critical to recognise in the implementation of the belated lockdown was that the government did not take this action voluntarily, and right until the last moment the Tories had tried to ignore what their own advisors were saying to them. Credit for the lockdown should be given to the concerted pressure put on the government by the trade union movement (with a particularly commendable role played by the National Education Union) who looked at what the scientific evidence was saying and took the appropriate actions.

Unfortunately, as we all now know the lockdown came too late, and the UK’s per capita death toll ranks amongst the highest in the world. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Tories continued to blunder through this pandemic, making elementary mistakes which resulted in the needless deaths of thousands.

From the beginning of the pandemic the government has told lie after lie: first that they weren’t trying to promote “herd immunity,” and later saying we should open our schools because children don’t actually transmit the coronavirus as much as adults (despite the fact that their own data from the Office of National Statistics showed that there was no statistical difference between any age group carrying the virus). Pushing ahead undeterred, the Tories told us schools would be reopening for business at the start of June. But thankfully a combination of pressure from trade unions and concerned parents forced a partial retreat.

Although tragically – feeling the pressure from the government — too many schools did end up reopening (even if partially) prior to the government fulfilling its promise of getting a working track-and-trace system in place to protect our communities. On this latter point: the ongoing failure of the government’s ability to implement what should be a fairly simple track-and-trace system owes much to their decision to trust the private sector to deliver the goods. The Tories are giving contracts to the very corporations with a proven track record of profiteering at the publics’ expense.

What could have been done?

As noted already, an ideal response to the pandemic would not have necessitated a full national lockdown at all. Instead if the government had taken the threat of pandemics seriously, they would have not cut our NHS to the bone, and they would have worked out a strategy for containing outbreaks with locally informed responses based on accurate data on infection rates, with mass testing and tracing. This would have meant having a competent government that was willing to put the needs of ordinary people before the needs of big business – a socialist alternative, where decisions are made by workers for workers!

July 4th has come and gone, and the national lockdown has now been lifted, but without the necessary safeguards in place to protect ordinary workers (not that they were in place anyway). The only people who remain protected are the super-rich, those who by virtue of their accumulated wealth — that is generated from the hard work of the working-class — are able to isolate themselves from the hustle and bustle of working life.

The only city that remained in lockdown beyond “super Saturday” was Leicester. Once you dig into the details of what has happened, it is clear that no city is safe from the Tories ongoing pandemic pandemonium. In an ideal world you might assume that the government would provide meaningful scientific data to local authorities up and down the country, in order to alert them to the pandemic spread. But the government has once again utterly failed in its democratic duty to be trusted to do even this, a colossal failure that has now seen Leicester locked into another two weeks of wholly avoidable pain.

Vital data not shared

In the case of Leicester, it seems that while the government and private sector profiteers providing testing services for the Tories understood that the pandemic was still spreading in parts of our city, they decided to keep this knowledge to themselves. This meant that local authority leaders only had a view of the infection data that was derived from the testing carried out in the NHS (so-called pillar 1 tests), and these test results were demonstrating that the infection rate had been on the downturn for some time. Needless to say Boris Johnson knew what was going on and on July 1 he boasted in parliament that “The government first took notice and acted on what was going on in Leicester on 8 June, because we could see that there was an issue there.” This ‘cleverness’ on the part of the government owed entirely to the fact that only they had sight of the decisive private sector test results for Leicester (the pillar 2 tests) while the City Council were deliberately kept in the dark. This critical data that only Johnson and his chums could see showed that the total daily infection rate on June 2 had already reached 67 in Leicester, while the Labour Council only had access to pillar 1 results which indicated only 7 people had tested positive that day.

In response, Johnson then pretended that the government had leapt into action to save the day, and he stated that they sent “four more mobile testing units” to Leicester “shortly thereafter” June 8th. The problem here is that Johnson’s statement is simply not true. In fact, prior to the peak Leicester only had one testing facility which was located five miles from the city centre (in Birstall), and for a few days only had a temporary visit from a mobile testing unit (which arrived on June 2 and left shortly after).

Instead of ordering a quick response, the government waited to let the city open their shops on June 15, then waited a few more days, until June 18, when the Tories finally managed to get around to opening their first permanent testing unit within the city itself (in Evington). On this day, one week after the government apparently noticed a problem, but 16 days after Leicester had a sizable pillar 2 infection spike, the government partially shared some of their pillar 2 data, and on the same night Matt Hancock decided to announce that the city now had an “outbreak” on its hands.

At this stage Leicester’s Labour City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby repeated a request he had made many times earlier that the government immediately share the detailed information from the partly revealed pillar 2 data so that Leicester could plan a response to contain the apparent outbreak. Thus, on June 19 Soulsby explained to the press that Leicester “doesn’t have crucial detail about where people who have been tested are from.” He added: “That is the only way we can get a proper picture of what is happening, what communities are being affected and then start to do anything about it.”

Failed by the government

The government chose to ignore the council’s reasonable requests and waited a few more days before setting up a second testing unit in the city (in Spinney Hills Park) on June 21. Then on June 25 the government established a third city-based testing site in Victoria Park. On this latter day, now many weeks into Leicester’s alleged crisis, the government finally shared the detailed results of pillar 2 testing with the city.

Unbeknown to local politicians, on June 28 the Tories then announced on television that Leicester was potentially facing a full lockdown. Then, against Soulsby’s very reasonable reservations, the city was quickly forced into accepting a two-week extension to their lockdown, with this decision being announced the following evening by Matt Hancock.

What we see here are the actions of an incompetent and bullying government who are deliberately trying to make a Labour-run council look like fools in their apparent mishandling of the pandemic. And while socialists have criticisms of Soulsby’s many political failures (including his long standing opposition to basic socialist ideas which was extended to his opposition to Jeremy Corbyn), what is clear is that Leicester was not given the data it needed to plan a targeted response to a localised outbreak.

Increase in cases or increase in testing?

Soulsby’s initial reluctance to enforce the Tories’ city-wide lockdown has been widely ridiculed and misreported on in the national media, but it turns out that his views on this matter were actually better informed by science than those pushed by the government. On the same day that the Tories publicly announced that the council had reluctantly agreed to the new lockdown (Monday, June 29), a critical report had been published by Public Health England’s Rapid Investigation Team which was titled “Preliminary investigation into COVID-19 exceedances in Leicester.” Importantly this report, drew particular attention to the high level of reported incidents “related to food factories/outlets” — which fits with reports about the lack of social distancing being carried out at one of Leicester’s largest food factories owned by the Tory-supporting owners of Samworth Brothers.

But most crucially the report concluded that “Evidence for the scale of the outbreak is limited and may, in part, be artificially related to growth in availability of testing.” This was a serious criticism that was largely overlooked in the media, and what it points to most of all is the ongoing failure of the government to collect the type of infection data that is useful for enabling local authorities to understand and contain outbreaks of the pandemic.

More localised testing obviously results in the identification of more infections, but without contextual information the persistent reporting of such isolated numbers means next to nothing. Hence we should be glad that more recently the Science Media Centre published a short report on July 2 which reviewed the recommendations made within Public Health England’s report. This led to one of the scientists reviewing the report to make a positive suggestion for remedying this problem, writing that “whether the rise in new cases [in Leicester] is attributable to the wider availability of testing could be tested by comparing the rates per 10,000 population between Leicester and other areas after normalisation by the total number of tests performed in each area.” Unfortunately, as obvious as this suggestion sounds, the Tories have neglected to perform such analyses – they seem to ignore all common-sense recommendations. And to make matters worse the government hasn’t even begun to undertake the type of randomised testing of the UK’s total population that would allow them to make accurate predictions for the true infection rate in different parts of the country. It is what we knew all along, the government simply doesn’t care about saving lives and minimising the spread of the pandemic, which is why we need to organise to remove them from power.

A selection of some of the still relevant demands that Socialist Alternative were raising from the beginning of the national lockdown (which can be read in full here) to help protect and extend workers’ rights during the lockdown included:

  • Closure of all non-essential workplaces, with no job losses and wages guaranteed – including for workers on precarious or zero-hour contracts. Employers to support work from home arrangements wherever possible
  • A programme of massive increase in hospital bed provision, including requisition of private hospital beds and secondment of medical workers in the private sector to the NHS – no compensation for private health bosses
  • Nationalise the pharmaceutical companies under democratic workers’ control and management
  • Proper protection of all health workers’ health – including mental health, – safety and working conditions. Democratic workers’ committees in each hospital to ensure health and safety of all workers and patients
  • A democratic, socialist world where the means of production are collectively owned and planned to meet the needs of all, rather than the profits of the tiny few

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