Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Protecting people, saving lives

What explains UK resistance to putting in place a national system of local track, trace and isolate?

Rosemary Bechler
3 November 2020, 12.12pm
When Andy Burnham received the Government response.
Screenshot: BBC news.

The strategy isn’t working across vast swathes of Europe. In the UK, this first became obvious to northern regions suffering lockdowns. Forget health versus the economy or lockdowns versus anti-lockdowns. The only justification for such restrictions is the precious time and opportunity it gives us to put in place the local find-test-trace-isolate–support system that does work. (Around six weeks is what Independent SAGE calculated for the UK on October 16 in their ‘Emergency Plan’. )

Which is why it was such a sliver of hope when these northern constituencies made two demands in negotiation with Johnson’s Government: firstly for effective local track and trace systems enabling them to isolate and support those who are infectious. Secondly the extension of the furlough scheme to include all individuals and businesses adversely affected by these same restrictions.

These two requests are not divided between health and the economy. The financial element is widely recognised as essential to the success of ‘trace, isolate and support’: not surprisingly people will avoid starving their children, or shopping their contacts and friends. As Stephen Bush says in the New Statesman: “it remains both crazy and cruel that the UK is enforcing lockdowns on households and businesses without maintaining sufficient economic support to do so.”

A positive response on both counts would make this a hugely popular government – even keeping its promises to new Tory voters in the ‘red belt’. Let me share with you the whole of the Sarah O’Connor FT quote excerpted in my last:

“Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt in June, promising a “New Deal” akin to the US president’s efforts to combat the Depression. One of the FDR government’s boldest decisions was to become “employer of last resort”.
The UK government should create jobs too: real roles that equip the economy for the future. Britain has a shortage of care workers, which are undoubtedly jobs with prospects, given the ageing population, and require no formal qualifications so can be ramped up quickly. It would take an extra 180,000 care workers just to bring the ratio of carers to the over-70s population back to its 2014 peak. Creating this number of jobs, paid at the “real living wage”, would cost about £5bn, according to the Resolution Foundation think-tank. Investments in teachers and teaching assistants, nurses, mental health workers, home insulation and green boiler installers would also pay dividends.”

O’Connor surely has an unanswerable case, given the systemic challenge we face. As Christine Berry pointed out in July, Rishi Sunak’s £5 billion of mostly repackaged investment plans, or 0.2% of UK GDP – was 200 times smaller than Roosevelt’s New Deal, amounting to 40% of US GDP at the time. So, plenty of scope: why not also take Anthony Costello’s hint, that ten of the £12 billion spent on an utterly defunct privatised and centralised track-and-trace system, “would have had greater impact” had they dispensed £1 million each to 10,000 currently excluded GP practises?


But there was a resounding NO to both demands, coupled with threats of a more punitive package. Why so? What’s stopping them? O’Connor acknowledges that Conservatives are instinctively wary about government intervention; but as several commentators have pointed out, ideological consistency in government decision-making went out of the window some time ago. Christine Berry goes straight for Johnson’s loyalty to the financiers and speculators who are the Conservative donors, in marked contrast to FDR’s vision. This is no secret – I tremble to think what kind of authoritarian regime is in the works to prevent a day of reckoning for the string of unproductive crony deals chronicled on openDemocracy, Byline Times and elsewhere.

But do these explain the stubborn resistance to local track and trace?

But do these explain the stubborn resistance to local track and trace? Surely some judicious facesaving would be well-advised at half the cost? Maybe Cummings, like the White House, is wedded to ‘herd immunity’ – hence the herding of students back to halls of residence to do their damnedest? Maybe Cummings, in the scrabble for centralised testing and centralised Apps, is chasing the eye-watering profits to be made from big data health systems. Successful local test and trace can only get in the way. Which might explain why they are only talking devolved decision-making now, when it is very nearly too late: Rudolf Klein’s phrase for an earlier stage in Thatcher’s privatisation of the NHS springs to mind – the “decentralisation of blame”.

We don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. But one motive is insufficiently explored. Look at the agencies that would have to be revived, given added capacity, and encouraged to work closely together in those six weeks it will take to build an effective local track and trace system. Look at the considerable numbers of ordinary people who they would be able to protect from infection, long-COVID, bankruptcy, death, and what Dame Louise Casey calls the coming “period of destitution”. Imagine the close combinations of production workers and socio-cultural professionals (such as teachers, social workers and salaried medical professionals), not excluding the interests of ethnic minorities and environmentalists, that result. They would be focused around an interventionist internationalist state with a strong domestic redistributive programme whose social democrat/democratic socialist lineaments already lurk in the current Labour Party manifesto.

The Tories would be rebuilding a class enemy that they have been inexorably dismantling since Margaret Thatcher first stepped onto the stage of history.

This piece was first published on November 1 in the November 2020 edition of Splinters.

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