VOICE EXTRA: Reaching a zero-Covid Scotland

OUR SAFETY IS IN OUR HANDS: the Westminster Tory government is now openly accepting the prospect of tens of thousands of further deaths over the autumn and winter in its desperate attempt to get the economy moving – an economy which only benefits 1 per cent of us

by Mike Downham ·

There is now a real opportunity for elimination of Covid-19 in Scotland, but the Scottish government cannot be relied upon to ensure that it happens.

A critical factor in achieving a zero-Covid Scotland is the level of infection in England, where the Westminster government is now openly accepting the prospect of tens of thousands of further deaths over the autumn and winter in its desperate attempt to get the economy moving – that old ‘economy’ which benefits only 1 per cent of us.

This represents a huge risk for Scotland of importing infection from England.

This piece will briefly review the contrasts between England and Scotland in relation to the current state of their epidemics and in the way the two governments are dealing with them, then discuss how we can seize the moment in Scotland to eliminate the virus and at the same time achieve a just and sustainable recovery from the crisis it precipitated.

What’s bad in England?
Independent SAGE recently published a report entitled ‘Zero Covid-19: Why is England not pursuing an elimination strategy?’

This report described the death toll in England over the coming months, implicitly accepted by current UK government strategy, as ‘not only preventable but absolutely unacceptable’.

It outlined ‘a new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVID UK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK’. Importantly, it also argued that the new strategy ‘should be informed by science and debated in public’.

By ‘elimination’ they mean ‘reduction to zero new infections spread among people living in a country and the presence of the measures necessary to prevent or deal with imported cases and associated spread from new arrivals’.

The report also makes it clear that the Test Trace Isolate system in England has failed, largely because it is co-ordinated centrally. It took three weeks for the evidence of an outbreak in Leicester to reach the Leicester City Council and its Director of Public Health.

What’s better in Scotland?
Independent SAGE says that Scotland has its epidemic under control and is well placed to achieve elimination of the virus. It recommends that Scotland should continue to increase its efforts until it has achieved elimination.

Two days after Independent SAGE published its report, the First Minister announced further relaxations of lockdown measures, to start either immediately or soon.

This is ‘Phase 3’, which she said was the most risky step the government had taken. She introduced the changes by saying the government considered that Scotland met all six of the World Health Organisation (WHO) conditions for relaxation of lockdown measures.

In the next breath, hedging her political bets, she told us that the fifth condition – a country must be able to manage imported cases – had given the government ‘pause for thought’ about its ability to manage the risk of cases being imported both from overseas and from other parts of the UK.

This all sounds good – the Scottish Government is notoriously successful at sounding good. And one thing they introduced last week – the mandatory wearing of masks in shops, at last, is as good as it sounds.

Important things missing
But four important things were missing from the substance of the announcement.

First, the Scottish Government is continuing to be silent about the capacity of its public health system to identify and react to outbreaks of infection quickly enough to deal with them before they spiral.

It’s all very well to have stamped out a small outbreak in Annan and Gretna, but what if there were bigger outbreaks, and simultaneous ones in say Ayr, Glasgow and Aberdeen? Could the co-ordination and staffing of the system cope? The First Minister said herself that we should expect other outbreaks.

Second, it’s nothing but a sound-bite to say that the Scottish Government was given ‘pause for thought’ by WHO condition 5, unless it puts travel restrictions in place alongside the relaxation measures.

Independent SAGE advises: ‘Restrict incoming or outgoing personal travel internationally and within Britain and Ireland to the extent necessary to maintain control of the epidemic and in particular to ensure effective isolation of incoming passengers.’

Third, this should have been the moment to announce measures to address the impact on the rest of the health service of redeploying large parts of the system to focus exclusively on Covid-19.

People left in limbo
As a result, people with potentially life-threatening conditions have been left in limbo, and others with chronic conditions untreated. The scale of this impact is likely to be huge.

A study by University College London and DATA-CAN predicted in April that as many as 18,000 people could die over the next year across the UK as a result of delays in diagnosis and treatment of cancer, particularly the surgical removal of tumors.

Despite the decline in infection rates, turning this round has been very slow. This is against a background where Scotland’s cancer waiting time targets have been missed for seven years in a row.

Fourth, there was no reference to the particular difficulties faced by refugees in Scotland. Given recent events in Glasgow, this was a serious omission.

The Home Office, not the Scottish Government, is largely to blame for the disgraceful treatment of many refugees in the epidemic, but judging by the rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Sunday (12 July) , there is a strong feeling that more can and must be done by the Scottish Government to support these highly vulnerable people.

The Scottish Government apparently didn’t even pause for thought about WHO condition 6: that ‘Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norm.’

This isn’t just a democratic principle, it’s an essential part of any successful public health strategy. Independent SAGE puts it like this: ‘The government [whether Westminster or Holyrood] must share [its] strategy with the public to seek their support and assistance in seeing it implemented.’

What can we do?

Here are six things I suggest we can do, in whatever small or larger ways we are able to:

Challenge the Scottish Government, through our MSPs, to follow through with the opportunity we have given them and increase their efforts to eliminate the virus in Scotland, in line with WHO and Independent SAGE advice.

Specifically, we ask the Government to:
a) give us comprehensive information about its public health capacity to deal with outbreaks
b) put in place travel restrictions necessary to prevent or deal with imported cases
c) do more to expedite lapsed services for people with chronic conditions, especially cancer
d) do more to support refugees
e) meet the wages of anyone who has to isolate as a contact for as long as they are away from work – after all it’s an action of social solidarity they are being asked to undertake

You could choose to use this wording in a letter to your MSP

Begin to discuss, in our communities and workplaces, how ‘lockdowns’ can be better targeted on specific high-risk settings and workplaces known to your community, rather than as a blanket, top-down instruction.

The word ‘lockdown’ itself has repressive implications, originating from the prison practice of locking prisoners in their cells. We could replace it with ‘safety measures’.

Also discuss who are the people in our community for whom sticking to safety measures is most difficult, particularly if they are isolating as a contact, so that community support can be more accurately targeted on the people who most need it.

Independent SAGE includes support for isolating contacts in its recommendations – Find, Trace, Test, Isolate, Support (FTTIS). Effective support can only be organised locally.

Organise collectively in our workplaces and communities to keep ourselves safe at home, at work and on the way to work (in relation to safe public transport). Join a union if you’re not already in one and elect your own Health & Safety reps who will have legal rights to training and monitoring of health and safety at work.

Ensure that there is adequate and appropriate PPE, distancing and cleaning in your workplace and that no one is forced to work in ways or in places where they are unsafe. Build collective organisation and confidence to save lives, save jobs, save the planet (see point 5).

Solidarity with English working class
Express our solidarity with working class people in England. Infection rates in England are a huge risk for us, but we mustn’t let that be a reason for us to turn against people living there.

Their lives are being put at risk by a government whose strategy has now been exposed to be nothing less than class cleansing.

Argue strongly for a Just Green Recovery for Scotland, to be merged with its strategy for elimination of the virus. Not one after the other, but simultaneously, the two strategies vitally reinforcing each other.

The focus of the Just Green Recovery strategy has to be jobs – both new jobs in carbon-saving and carbon-neutral sectors (which include higher education, schools, the NHS, care services, nature conservation, local food production – not only the energy sector), and fighting every single threatened redundancy in these sectors.

Our Safety is in Our Hands
If we don’t stand up and check the way things are going, it’s estimated that one third of young Scots will be unemployed by Christmas.

Support the realisation that Our Safety is in Our Hands. We live in the country (the UK) where more people have died so far from Covid-19 per head of population than in any other country in the world.

We are best placed to recognise that we cannot put our lives into the hands of neoliberal governments, however they spin themselves as having our interests at heart.

They have made it clear that if we are Black, or poor, or old, or disabled, or have underlying health conditions, then they believe we can be sacrificed.

We cannot and will not let them.

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