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When opposites attract: Labour's underwhelming response to the Covid crisis

David Sedgwick
July 28, 2020

The whole Covid-19 saga reeks of something unsavoury. But instead of asking questions that would have almost certainly put Johnson and Hancock on the brink of resignation, Labour has gone AWOL, argues David Sedgwick

A political party in opposition has many vital functions. One of its most important roles lies in scrutinising government policy. In a healthy democracy an opposition party therefore acts as a bulwark against excess. Holding power to account is a public duty, one which should be performed robustly and unstintingly. Well, that's the theory.

However, in the light of some quite frankly unfathomable decisions from the Boris Johnson government regarding Coronavirus a serious question arises: where have Sir Keir Starmer and UK Labour been these past months? From an ill-advised lockdown supposed to last three weeks in order to 'flatten the curve' and 'protect the NHS' to the introduction of compulsory face masks several months after the Covid-19 horse bolted, incompetent doesn't even begin to describe the government response.

When it ought to have run with scientific advice strongly pointing towards herd immunity, the Johnson administration bowed instead to media demands for lockdown. And so began a comedy of fatal errors. Sir Keir Starmer and Labour must have been rubbing their hands together in glee, ready to hold Tory feet over a ferociously hot fire, right? Not quite.

A gaping wide open goal before them, the response from Labour has been lame in the extreme: agree with the government on all counts but suggest measures have not been extreme enough! That's about it. Not a word about the long (and short term) damage to the prosperity and health of working people many of whom will find themselves in debt for the rest of their lives thanks to Johnson's prolonged and arguably totally unnecessary lockdown. Not a word about small businesses. Not many words at all.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's draconian measures continue to effect the most vulnerable in society – especially children. Who can possibly tell what effect social distancing will have upon the psychosocial development of children?

According to the Royal College six children have died as a direct result of Coronavirus, but 'seeking medical help too late was a contributory factor in the deaths of nine children in paediatric care with the figure likely to be higher.' Experts suggest these deaths were due to government messages which told parents to 'stay at home, protect the NHS.' Indeed, data reveals that attendance at A&E fell by 57 per cent between mid-April and mid-May. Patients young and old are needlessly dying.

So where is the pushback? Where is Keir Starmer's opposition when you need them?

Recall that Covid-19 has not been classified as a High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID) since March. Amongst other characteristics HCIDs 'spread quickly in communities' and require 'enhanced population and system response' to ensure effective management. Despite this knowledge, just weeks later the country went into forced lockdown while a Labour front bench looked feebly on.

Covid-19 related deaths duly peaked in the UK on April 8. Since then its evolution has followed predictable paradigms. In recent days Chris Witty has even revealed to the House of Commons Health Committee that the 'epidemic' had likely been in retreat before the full lockdown was imposed!

Far from 'controlling the virus' the so-called pandemic has behaved as expected, peaking early Spring, then with the onset of warmer temperatures, burning itself out. Take the case of Sweden. After an early spike, Sweden is now recording single-figure death rates without ever having implemented lockdown. The country now has herd immunity; the Swedish economy is intact and its children relatively unscathed.

An April 8 report from the Department for Health and Social care estimated there would be 41-45,000 direct deaths from Covid-19 and 200,000 excess deaths – chiefly due to cancelled and/or postponed treatments and diagnoses following lockdown. The extent of government malfeasance however has only truly emerged since a recent study published by The Lancet which concluded that:

'Government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns, and a high rate of COVID-19 testing were not associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of critical cases or overall mortality.'

In other words, 45,000 deaths would have likely occurred despite lockdown which means that 200,000 estimated excess deaths should and could (still) be avoided. That's a lot of potential blood on government hands. But at the very moment the country is crying out for robust opposition the house is empty. Labour could have had Boris Johnson and his equally incompetent Health Secretary Matt Hancock squirming right now. But no. Labour's timidity in the face of gross Conservative incompetency must rank as one of the great Covid-19 mysteries.

Nor has Labour challenged the government's latest baffling edict compelling shoppers to wear face masks. Yet here is a goal as wide – wider – than all the others. Published research suggests the efficacy of wearing face masks to prevent spread of infection is at best weak and may in fact be counter-productive: 'Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection." (C Raina MacIntyre et al, 2015).

For the government it is a matter of pragmatism. It is assumed this latest edict will spare the blushes of Johnson and Hancock both of whom are hoping face coverings and the uncertainty created by their use will buy precious time until the emergence of a vaccine. Fear is the key. Face masks will cover-up many things – not least the Prime Minister's decision to wilfully trash the UK economy.

Cynics might suggest face coverings will indeed artificially prolong the virus long enough for compulsory vaccination to be mandated. Imagine the difficulty of selling a vaccine to a healthy public six months or even longer after all traces of the 'plague' have disappeared. But contracts have been signed. Vaccine developers spend millions of pounds on research on the assurance that their investment will yield significant dividends. Fuelling suggestions that compulsory vaccinations have always been the endgame, the government has just ordered 90 million vaccines from three Big Pharma companies, BioNTech, Pfizer and Valneva. Yet Covid-19 has all but disappeared from the UK. The potential for embarrassment is huge. So where is Labour?

Leaving aside links to Bill Gates and deliberately inflated death figures, the whole Covid-19 saga reeks of something unsavoury. But instead of asking questions that would have almost certainly put Johnson and Hancock on the brink of resignation, Labour has gone AWOL.

The UK's official opposition party has found its hands tied for a good reason. For it is one half of a political blob which, lines between Left and Right largely hypothetical, must argue the toss, fight over ideological nuances. Opposing the government would have meant opposing the corporate institutions and Big Pharma that stand to massively benefit from the Covid scheme. And Labour was never going to do that.

With millions of disaffected Tory voters out there waiting to be mopped up horrified at the party's veer towards autocracy, despite some half-hearted attempts at sabre-rattling, Labour has effectively abdicated its position as the UK's official party of opposition. Little wonder the party trails a Tory government in power for a decade by anything between 6-10 points in the opinion polls – a massive rebuke of its softball approach.

Thus while a rogue government staggers on orchestrating the biggest assault on civil liberties outside of war and thereby presenting arguably the biggest open goal in British political history, Sir Keir Starmer and friends can only look on, hamstrung, impotent. Liberty, they argue, should have been eroded earlier! The economy trashed for longer! Sir Keir and co have simply rolled over. No questions, no qualms and absolutely no opposition whatsoever.

David Sedgwick is an author and university lecturer living between Malaga and Split. His books, 'The Fake News Factory: Tales from BBC-land' and 'BBC: Brainwashing Britain' cover topics as diverse as Cash-for-Questions, Brexit, chlorine-washed chicken and Syrian regime change.
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