Following last week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, current ‘Plan B’ COVID restrictions are set to end tomorrow. Furthermore, the compulsory self-isolation period for those infected will expire on 24 March.
Despite case numbers remaining high (with almost 90,000 daily positive test results at the time of writing), the Prime Minister has made this reckless move in order to appease Tory backbenchers and save his own skin.
The message is loud and clear. The ruling class now tells us that we must ‘learn to live with COVID-19’ – this deadly disease that has killed over 175,000 people in Britain, and which has already left an estimated 1-2 million people suffering from the effects of ‘long COVID’.
Tory backbenchers are keen to end all COVID restrictions in an effort to get British businesses back up and running. Their priority is getting workers back into workplaces, in order to keep the capitalists’ profits flowing.
Removing sick pay and legal protections for workers infected with COVID, in this respect, helps to push costs down and profits up.
Johnson has cynically conceded to these demands in order to alleviate the pressure on him, with a number of Conservative MPs publicly calling for his resignation following recent #Partygate revelations.
But it is workers who will pay the price for this opportunism: forced by callous bosses to work through any illness; or unable to afford to take time off when sick, in the case of the most precariously employed.
The result will be permanently swollen case numbers, as the virus is left to ‘let rip’ through workplaces and communities. This, in turn, could see further – deadlier – mutations emerging. And it will mean more people inflicted with long COVID.
All of this will be exacerbated by any decision to charge for lateral flow tests, as Tory ministers have hinted could happen in the near future. This would no doubt reduce the level of self-testing across the population, and thus increase the rate of contagion (whilst boosting the profits of private firms responsible for producing test kits, of course).
The social consequences of removing all restrictions, therefore, will be to exacerbate both the public health crisis and the economic dislocation caused by the virus, and by the government’s botched response to the pandemic, further increasing the pressures on the NHS and the likelihood of labour shortages.
This is the ‘new normal’ of chaos and crisis that the Tories and the ruling class expect us to ‘learn to live with’. And it is ordinary people who will be expected to foot the bill
Long COVID is defined as suffering symptoms for 12 weeks or more after being infected. Such symptoms include respiratory problems, fatigue, and even memory loss.
Last year, experts estimated that around 10-20% of COVID cases not requiring hospital treatment would see long-term after-effects. For those who have been hospitalised, however, this figure shoots up to 90%.
Essential workers who worked throughout the pandemic are therefore more at risk of suffering from long COVID, given that they are more likely to have been exposed to the virus and to have required hospital treatment.
The true scale of long COVID is hard to know, however, as cases have been massively under-reported. As of June 2021, GPs had recorded 23,270 people in England with long COVID, whilst other major studies have estimated that the true number (at the time) was closer to two million.
With such a huge increase in new cases, virus modellers say that “a protracted wave of long COVID is inevitable”. Claire Hastie from NHS England’s long COVID taskforce has called it the “biggest mass disabling event in history.”
In particular, medical professionals have highlighted the impact of long COVID on young people. “[It is] challenging for a lot of younger folk that really didn’t expect this to be anything more than a viral flu-like illness,” said one doctor.
Capitalism to blame
This ‘protracted wave’ will prolong the ongoing crisis in the UK economy and the NHS.
The blame for this lies squarely with the capitalists and their political representatives. Over a decade of austerity and privatisation has severely limited the NHS’ ability to deal with the pandemic, and many other illnesses, with tireless healthcare staff being worked to the point of exhaustion.
Indeed, even before COVID-19 emerged, the NHS was routinely on the verge of collapse most winters. And these seasonal pressures on hospitals and health workers are only set to get worse.
Meanwhile, Tory recklessness and incompetence, combined with relentless pressure from the bosses, have allowed the virus to rampage through society over the last two years, leaving millions of ordinary people to suffer the consequences to their lives and livelihoods.
In response to this catastrophe, the TUC has correctly called for long COVID to be “recognised as a disability and COVID-19 as an occupational disease”. This would give workers access to legal protections and compensation.
But we must go further, and fight to ensure that the victims of capitalism’s coronavirus crisis have access to the resources they need. People who need specialist treatment such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, for example, should get free and immediate access – not just the rich.
This is only possible, however, with an NHS that is fully-funded – and democratically run by workers, for workers.
Fight for socialism
The whole labour movement must therefore fight to make the capitalists pay for these crises.
This means mobilising activists to save the NHS with socialist policies: reversing all privatisation and outsourcing; nationalising Big Pharma; and conducting a mass, union-led recruitment drive of nurses and other key workers.
And it means fighting for demands such as full sick pay for all workers, as well as for workers’ control over health and safety measures in the workplace – all paid for by expropriating the billionaires.
In the last analysis, long COVID is the reflection of a sick system. In pursuit of their own narrow, short-term interests, the myopic ruling class has allowed the virus to spread and develop uncontrollably across the world.
Only by taking power out of the hands of the capitalists can we take control of our own fates, and put the lives of billions ahead of the profits of a few.