Masks for Freedom Day
Derek James has no time for the government’s mixed messaging or Starmer’s constructive opposition
After weeks of upbeat media briefings and comments by government ministers promising ‘Freedom Day’, the tone and the reality of the announcement that restrictions would be lifted in England on July 19 turned out to be rather different.
This was best encapsulated in the headlines in the Tory press, which had previously been cheer-leading for ‘freedom’ and calling for an end to the remaining constraints on business and social life, originally imposed by the Johnson government earlier this year to contain the Covid pandemic. Instead of the gung-ho calls for getting back to normality and the feel-good boosterism associated with the success of the vaccination campaign, there was a much more circumspect approach, mirroring the unusually measured and cautious tone adopted by Boris Johnson during his press conference announcing the changes to the lockdown rules. Thus, the Daily Express hailed, “Green light for Freedom Day, but go easy!”, whilst the Daily Mail in its headline asked: “Freedom … but for how long?” Other headlines took up the responsible approach, emphasising the potential risks associated with the easing of the restrictions. The Times led with: “Thousands in hospital each day if UK is hasty”, whilst The Guardian talked in a similar vein about “fears of ‘exit wave’ and 200 deaths a day”.1
A closer look at Johnson’s statement and the detail of the policy explains the political dynamics and contradictions behind the change in emphasis. The legal requirement to wear face masks in certain areas, such as public transport and shops, will be scrapped, but is replaced by a government “expectation and recommendation” that people will continue to wear face coverings in confined spaces. Similarly, nightclubs and large indoor venues will reopen, but owners will be strongly ‘encouraged’ to demand that people present Covid certificates to gain entry. Social distancing will be scrapped, as will the ‘work from home if you can’ order, although it appears that the government is ‘expecting and recommending’ that employers carry out a gradual, phased return to work over the summer.2 As the Financial Times put it, Boris Johnson’s statement urged “extreme caution” after the restrictions are lifted, but “shifted responsibility for tackling the rapidly spreading virus to companies and individuals”.3
Much of the early pressure on the government to end the lockdown restrictions came from particular businesses, such as hospitality, leisure and the wider service sector. Demands that theatres, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues reopen as quickly as possible reflected both the importance of these sectors to the economy and the widespread desire amongst many people to get back to normal life after a grim 16 months of restrictions. Likewise, the frequent calls for workers to ‘get back to the office’ made by Tory backbenchers in the Covid Recovery Group and the attempts to minimise the seriousness of Covid in the early phases of the pandemic can be linked to the particular interests of specific sections of capitalism.
For many on the left this clash between profit and the health and safety of workers and the general population, along with the initially tardy response and general incompetence of the Johnson government, were the key political issues from the very start of the crisis.
Much of the ‘constructive opposition’ by Labour MPs focused on similar issues - although frequently reduced to rather pathetic parliamentary point-scoring. The response of trade union leaders and disability rights’ groups representing the medically vulnerable to the ending of restrictions has been similarly critical: Mick Lynch of the RMT has dubbed the policy a “free-for-all for the bosses”, whilst others have described the easing of the lockdown as a gamble that goes against much medical and scientific advice.4
The policy of the Johnson government throughout the pandemic has been one big gamble. After initially downplaying the seriousness of the situation, like other rightwing governments such as Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson turned 180 degrees and went for full ‘Covid socialism’. This took the form of the furlough scheme and other support for British capitalism, alongside the mobilisation of the resources of the state, in partnership with the drug companies and medical researchers, to develop an effective vaccine. As we know, despite the incompetence of individual ministers and the cronyism associated with the implementation of the policy, the gamble paid off and the rollout of a mass vaccination programme has been successful. It has also paid political dividends for the Tories, who have benefited in the opinion polls from a vaccine bounce. However, now comes the hard part for the government - the tapering off and ending of the furlough scheme and the easing of the lockdown.
If uncertainties remain about the future trajectory of the pandemic and the possibilities of rising cases and hospitalisations in the coming months, at least the politics of the pandemic are becoming a lot clearer. If the easing of the restrictions and the emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ seems to indicate a resumption of business as usual by the Tories, this return to normality still rests on the deficits and the state intervention in support of British capitalism that characterise Johnson’s ‘Covid socialism’. It was this intervention, along with the collective medical provision of the NHS and the involvement of tens of thousands of volunteers - not “greed” and “capitalism”, as Boris Johnson would have it - that turned the tide and kept the economy and society going for the last 16 months.5 It shows that the capitalist class and the state will indeed tear up the textbooks and do whatever it takes to keep their system afloat during an emergency.
The question now is how all this will be paid for. There will inevitably be a post-lockdown boom as pent-up consumer demand is released and deferred purchases are made, but the impact of such a ‘boom’ on tax revenues is open to question. It is also certain that state support has propped up what are, in effect, zombie businesses that will go to the wall when that support is withdrawn, increasing unemployment and further reducing the tax take. It is these economic uncertainties and the demand for reductions in the deficit made by fiscal hawks in the cabinet like Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid that will help to frame the debate about how quickly ‘Covid socialism’ should be wound down.6
However, other sections of the Tory Party and the capitalist class will also want to have their say about the speed of this return to normality, not least because of the impact of deficit reduction on public spending and Johnson’s much vaunted ‘levelling up’ agenda. The political reaction to Sunak’s hints that the triple lock on state pensions may be relaxed in the autumn are an echo of these wider policy disagreements within the government and perhaps a sign of the shape of things to come.7
Lessons for left
Surely a key factor in the next few months will be the public response to the easing of restrictions and the reaction to the likely increase in Covid cases. The experience of other countries, such as the Netherlands and Israel, which have reimposed restrictions after some relaxation, will colour the reaction to the new situation. There has been an initial pushback against the ambiguous nature of the government’s ‘expectations’ and ‘recommendations’, with some transport operators and retailers saying they will continue to regard face masks and other restrictions as compulsory.8 Many continue to support continued restrictions through a sense of social, not individual, responsibility and a strong desire to do the best for the collective good.
Workers and medically vulnerable groups are right to be suspicious of the intentions of ministers and employers who loudly proclaim their commitment to ‘freedom from restrictions’ and ‘getting back to normal’ as soon as possible. The labour movement must, of course, defend the health and safety of the working class, along with the rest of the population.
But the pandemic requires much more from us than simply defending our immediate interests. There are valuable lessons here for the politics of the left: we must build on the valuable collective experience of ‘Covid socialism’. If a capitalist government can take radical action to save its system and defend the interests of its class, we must do the same. If we really want to offer an alternative to the anarchy and failures of a capitalist system so starkly revealed in the four million deaths globally during this pandemic, the rule of the working class internationally is the only way.