At the start of the Covid pandemic, we were told that the virus was a great leveller. There were endless platitudes about how we were all in this together. Every one of us was plunged into a world of uncertainty, anxiety and a loss of freedom. We found ourselves suddenly grappling with Zoom, furlough schemes and the word ‘unprecedented’. We all, to varying degrees, felt scared.
As the weeks and months went on, it became clear that Covid wasn’t the mighty unifier we had been led to believe. As the middle and upper classes began working from home, those with lower-paid jobs — nurses, bus drivers, care-workers, cleaners, Uber drivers and supermarket stackers — found themselves not only more likely to contract the virus, but also more likely to face the economic brunt. Those on zero-hour contacts were let go as their employers panicked, leaving them to contend with month-long waits for the furlough scheme. The demand for food banks rose sharply — when you’re living hand-to-mouth there is no wiggle room for any further financial dent. Domestic abuse cases soared as survivors found they had nowhere left to run except a park where they would be berated for sitting down. Children who lived in abusive homes were left trapped. It soon emerged that Black and Asian communities were more likely to die of the virus than white people. All this happened as the PM and his colleagues partied like Marie Antoinette at No 10 with wine, cheese and cake.
Let there be no mistake – the pandemic did nothing but amplify social inequalities. It proved we do not all suffer the same.
Two years on, and Boris Johnson has said that it’s all over — restrictions are lifting and it’s time to ‘live with Covid’. But how can we pretend this virus no longer exists? As I write, the Queen has still has it. The World Health Organisation and the British Medical Association don’t back the changes. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said yesterday that he expected further variants and added that “they could be more severe.” Without Covid restrictions, there will be more infections and once again it will be the poorest and most vulnerable who will face the harshest consequences. Those on a low income, already suffering from a cost of living crisis, already choosing between food and heating, will now have an additional expenditure to weigh up.
If you’re using a sock as a sanitary towel or living on hot water and toast, finding the budget for a lateral flow simply isn’t an option. This isn’t about withdrawing restrictions, it’s about withdrawing support from those who need it. While many of us will still take a test before we see an elderly relative or vulnerable friend, those in financial hardship will have a different kind of choice to make — in fact, it isn’t really a choice at all. Without free testing and the data gleaned, it will presumably be difficult for the government to see any new variants on the horizon. All of this is a very easy, if fool hardy, way of eliminating Covid — no one gets the virus if no one tests.
It’s also worth considering the impact that the lifting of restrictions will have on pregnant women. According to the British Medical Journal, there are still “large numbers” of pregnant women being admitted into hospital with Covid. We know that contracting the virus during pregnancy can increase the risk of preterm birth, stillbirth and possibly other pregnancy complications. Many women are likely to be put off by attending their ante and postnatal classes as a result of the measures lifting. Medical, pregnancy-related issues will go undetected.
Isolation payments are also over. Although Chris Whitty advises that people still self-isolate if they test positive, the public will receive no financial support if they do so. It is also not a legal requirement. What this means is that great swathes of people will be forced to work even if they have Covid because they won’t have another option. The vulnerable will no longer be safeguarded against contracting the virus from their carers. Does Johnson hope to kill the poor through abject poverty or disease? It’s unclear. Or is he focused on eliminating the clinically vulnerable entirely through allowing the infected to mix freely? It truly is the worst last few days of Rome. We are being told to take personal responsibility by a man who famously never does.
This pandemic will ‘end’ as it began; the lives of the most vulnerable will worsen while the rich prosper. Johnson proves with this latest announcement that yet again he has no interest in protecting the weakest. We all want this be over – it’s been a long and miserable 24 months – but we can also do better than offering health protection that only works for the affluent. This isn’t a case of withholding public freedoms; offering free testing offers us the tools to do the right thing, and keep people safe.
The UK doesn’t have a great track record in making measured, balanced decisions when it comes to Covid. Now, for the grand finale, No 10 is making yet another dangerous gamble yet. Regardless of the outcome, we know who will suffer the most.