Covid cases are skyrocketing every day as the Omicron variant takes hold. Taisie Tsikas argues that this is the predictable outcome of the ‘Freedom Day’ policies and global vaccine apartheid.

Boris Johnson holds Covid-19 press conference. Image via Number 10 Flickr.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Omicron crisis. Reported 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 as yet no evidence for this according to an Imperial study. Even if it does turn out to be milder, the sheer rate at which it is spreading will quickly mean high hospitalisation rates anyway. Before Omicron took off, the UK was already running at about 50,000 Covid cases a day, with huge strain on health workers and NHS capacity.

The Omicron variant was a predictable outcome of the global vaccine apartheid perpetrated by Big Pharma’s drive for profit. High transmission means more opportunities for the virus to mutate. Britain bears more responsibility than almost any other country in the world, as one of the last nations still causing artificial scarcity of the vaccine by blocking the patent waiver on vaccines and associated technologies. The UK government brought the world the Alpha variant by allowing persistent high transmission, and now they can take their share of the credit for a variant that is on its way to becoming globally dominant in the next few months. There is nothing inherent in the evolution of viruses that suggests Covid variants will get milder.

Johnson claimed at the last press conference that ‘we are throwing everything at it’, but the move to Plan B was far too little too late. At the time of writing, vaccinated close contacts of people with Covid are not even being asked to self-isolate and instead only to take daily tests. Johnson was clear about the reasoning: ‘We want to keep supply chains moving.’ Of course, as with the so-called ‘pingdemic’, the cause of disruption is the virus itself, not the measures to control transmission, but the Tories do not want to give workers more leeway to stay home when they know they need to for the safety of others.

The government is relying almost solely on vaccination to see us through the crisis. Health workers were given no notice of the accelerated booster rollout, and have warned that the rollout cannot be done safely while maintaining other services. The extra immunity takes some time to kick in, which makes the accelerated boosters irrelevant to the huge numbers currently being infected every day.

While the accelerated boosters will be a real advantage before long, we need to drive down transmission of the virus right now. Technocratic fixes will not be enough. A few days ago, Independent SAGE rightly called for a circuit breaker in the run-up to Christmas, and Sage advisors have advised the government to introduce ‘more stringent measures … very soon’. Polling has shown that just over half the public backs action. Johnson and Javid must stop prevaricating and introduce an urgent set of measures to dramatically reduce contacts. 

There are sections of the British left who oppose this position. Left opposition to ‘lockdowns’ generally fails to recognise one of two things. Firstly, even though we must obviously fight for increased healthcare capacity, sick pay and so on, there comes a point where the opportunities for early intervention have been missed and so ‘lockdown’ becomes by far the least-worst way to prevent deaths, Long Covid and the knock-on effects of an overwhelmed health system. Lockdowns are always a sign of a previous policy failure, policy failures that the Tories keep making by design, but once transmission has reached the dizzying rates we are seeing now, action on a bigger scale is necessary. 

Secondly, ‘lockdown’ does not describe a specific set of policies. It is a politically contested category. We have seen police forces around the world justify assaults and repression with reference to ‘Covid security’, and we have seen workers forced into unsafe non-essential workplaces day after day during lockdowns that severely limited social contact. We have to fight for alternatives that work on our own terms and put power in workers’ hands, backed up by financial support. Adam Tooze has also drawn attention to the fact that a lot of reduction in contacts is driven by people and institutions taking things into their own hands, making ‘shutdown’ a more useful term for the overall effect.

We didn’t have to enter the Omicron crisis with cases already at 50,000 a day and with the healthcare system on its knees. Johnson’s government has consistently resisted introducing positive measures that would raise the public’s expectations, make everyone safer and reduce the likelihood of exponential increase taking off: raising sick pay and making it universally available; building a test, trace, isolate system run by the NHS and councils, backed up by decent support; funding for ventilation in schools and workplaces; mask mandates etc. The real alternative to lurching in and out of lockdown is not the false promise of ‘learning to live with the virus’ but a comprehensive low-incidence or ‘zero Covid’ strategy, combined with making vaccines generally available in the Global South through patent waivers and an end to hoarding.

The fact that we are yet again facing a situation where ‘lockdown’ is now the only way to mitigate a health disaster is a predictable outcome of the ideologically driven ‘Freedom Day’ policy that puts short-termist business interests before public health. Omicron cases are doubling roughly every two days. Every day of delay in introducing a circuit breaker to cut transmission is magnifying the crisis ahead of us.

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