Analysis Guest article

Labour’s betrayal of NHS staff during the pandemic is a political choice and a foolish one

Phil Bevin worked in LOTO for Jeremy Corbyn and is now a director of The Cosmos, an initiative to promote left politics and policies.

Labour’s message to NHS staff struggling to cope with a massive rise in COVID-19 cases over the holiday period might as well have been “suck it up, you’re on your own”.

Labour’s renewed drive to be less policy-literate than the Conservatives was announced by Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, who emphatically endorsed the Government’s approach to not bother with taking serious measures to tackle COVID-19. On the decision to loosen measures to protect health and curb the spread of the virus during skyrocketing cases and hospital admissions, Streeting said:

After a difficult 2021, people will be relieved to see no new restrictions ahead of the new year, but we need reassurance that this is the right decision being taken for the right reasons and that schools and the NHS will be able to cope.

New Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting

So, once again Labour was seeking policy answers from a government that it regularly describes as incompetent. It does this while overlooking advice from Independent SAGE, which has highlighted that loosening measures for protecting public while the virus is surging is unlikely to get the situation back under control in order to make 2022 any less “difficult” than 2021, or 2020 for that matter. As Independent Sage has pointed out:

more [not less] stringent measures will be required to get R below 1… it is important to take immediate measures to slow the spread of infection so that society and the NHS are not in danger of being overwhelmed.

Consequences ‘for many years to come’

Somehow, the Labour front bench seems unable to countenance that the best way to successfully emerge from a public health emergency is not to endorse the failed policies of a failed Government, which are the very reason we have not been able to consistently return to a more “normal” way of life since the pandemic began, but to offer a compelling, and workable alternative.

The reality is logically very simple: if you allow exponential spread of Omicron (mild or not) without expanding NHS capacity, the NHS won’t be able to cope: meaning cancellations of treatment for illnesses across the board. As a result, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for many years to come, not least because of deaths and long term conditions resulting from delays and cancellations to non-COVID related appointments and procedures.

A political choice

Given the obviousness of this point, it’s hard to believe that the decision to acquiesce to the inevitability of entirely avoidable public health emergencies, as Labour has been doing since Jeremy Corbyn Stepped down as Labour Leader in April 2020, isn’t more a political choice than a consequence of general incompetence (perhaps it’s both).

That Labour’s ongoing refusal to hold the Government to account over its failures regarding COVID-19 is a political choice seems even more likely when we consider that there is a readily available and entirely sensible policy proscription that a responsible opposition would be advocating. For instance, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out when I interviewed him last year, the pandemic was an opportunity to expand NHS capacity by bringing healthcare providers under public control, therefore increasing the number of beds available and making it easier to coordinate the national response. Another of the tangible successes of Corbyn’s final weeks in office was securing the furlough policy, which, although imperfectly implemented by the Government, enabled many people to withstand the hardships of the early stages of the pandemic.  Although it wouldn’t be possible to extend furlough indefinitely, a more permanent solution is readily available right now, once again proposed by Corbyn himself in the Islington Tribune:

I […] want to see a guaranteed level of income for everyone, which in a sense is what the national minimum wage was about and what the living wage campaign is about, and what the minimum pension income provisions are about.

Jeremy Corbyn

It’s easy to see how the combination of an expanded NHS and wider public sector, providing universal basic services, coupled with a guaranteed income of around the minimum wage for those without work, immediately rolled out via the existing universal credit system, could form the basis for a sustainable new social settlement that would allow us to emerge from the pandemic.

The direction set by Corbyn could have been seamlessly carried forward by Starmer’s incoming leadership, if it had wanted to do so. From a political point of view, the rationale for the Starmer leadership’s doubling down on misguided policy positions is most likely that they believe it has “worked”. After two years of continuous crises, missed opportunities and fluffed open goals from the opposition, Johnson’s unpopularity is such that polling is finally showing consistent Labour leads of between 5 and 9 percentage points.

There’s also evidence that the public is less supportive of “restrictive” measures than they were at the same time last year. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2020/03/17/level-support-actions-governments-could-take.

However, none of these figures are clear cut. Anyone who studies polling knows that it’s the trend that really counts.

Stalled polling and continued collapses where it matters

Yes, Labour’s headline polling is good but there are signs that it has stalled. For instance, recent polls from Opinium and Yougov show small drops in Labour support. While this is well within the margin of error, there are more worrying portents for Labour. A particular concern should be the discrepancy between Labour’s headline national polling and actual votes cast in real by-elections, which have frequently seen Labour’s vote share collapse.

For instance, in Bransgore & Burley (New Forest) by-election, Labour’s vote collapsed by 23 points.

In the Roffey South (Horsham) council by-election, Labour’s vote went down by 9%.

And, of course, in the North Shropshire by election Labour’s vote went down by more than 12%.

Ordinarily, if they are isolated examples. big shifts in by elections can be explained by local factors.

But this is a trend. A strong opposition party should do well in mid-term by elections. However, although the Tory vote is collapsing in many places, so is Labour’s. This suggests that in real elections on the ground Labour is not the main beneficiary of public opposition to the Conservative government. The front bench “strategy” of non-opposition on COVID could well be damaging Labour’s actual results in real elections, as the Party takes its share of the blame.

Covid trends

Specially on COVID, polling also suggests that Labour’s view that people will have been “relieved” at the Government’s decision not to introduce further restrictions before the new year is an unevidenced assertion. It’s true that, according to YouGov, in mid-December the public was less supportive of a number of the more restrictive public health measures the Government could introduce than they were at the same time in 2020. But it’s also true that support for these policies is higher than it was a few months ago and remains, in many cases, considerable.

For example, support for quarantining anyone who has been in contact with a contaminated patient was 49%. This much lower than the 71% support the measure received at the same time in 2020 but higher than on 14 October, when it stood at 43%. Similarly, support for temporarily closing schools had the support of 21% of the public on 17 December 2021, lower than the 42% it had on 15 December 2020 but where it is now marks a considerable increase from where it stood on 14 October 2021, when it was just 10%.

Support for cancelling routine hospital appointments understandably remains very low, whereas support for allowing people to work from home is 62%.

To take from this data that people will be “relieved” to see no further measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 is an oversimplification to the point of falsehood. The measures used to tackle the spread of COVID-19 are constituted by a diverse range of policies, which have varying popular support. Some are more popular than others at different times.

Moreover, public perception is not static and is liable to shift. As the more-than doubling of support for school closures between October and December 2021 implies, people’s views on the measures that are reasonable and necessary will change along with their perception of the seriousness of the pandemic. Finally, it doesn’t address the relationship between different measures. For instance, if people were told that fewer restrictions would almost certainly lead to more cancellations of routine hospital appointments then public attitudes to the need for more restrictive measures might shift considerably.

This is where narratives spun by the main political parties, mainstream media and others have been misinforming.

In a write-up on Omicron, the BBC placed considerable emphasis on a study that suggested that people contracting the variant are “up to 70% less likely to need hospital care”. The phrase “up to” did much of the headline’s work in framing the situation. Furthermore, the BBC’s article did not consider that the increased transmissibility of Omicron could counteract the apparent mildness of the new variant.   

I’ve already addressed Labour’s assertion that the public would be “relieved” to see no additional restrictions. But worryingly this framing has been adopted by journalists who we might expect to know better. For example, in rhetoric similar to that of the Labour front bench, the Guardian’s Owen Jones’s statement that “public support for lockdown measures is disintegrating – a new approach is needed” implies that support for such measures is in freefall, which is simply not the case.

A ‘feedback loop’ and betrayal

The downplaying of Omicron across mainstream media bears all the characteristics of a feedback loop, in which politicians and their mainstream media colleagues confirm each-others’ assumptions. It’s certainly worrying that even nominally progressive journalists are willing to follow the Westminster consensus. It’s clear that the ‘Westminster elite’ and its outriders have abandoned teachers, parents, children, patients, the clinically vulnerable, doctors and nurses to their own devices on COVID. It’s great to see teaching unions push back on full reopening of schools without proper social distancing and ventilation, and the change in the Government’s position on masks in schools shows that opposition by campaign groups like SafeEdforAll can make a difference.

But more needs to be done. We need more politicians brave enough to highlight failures of existing policies regarding COVID-19 and offer meaningful, long-term alternatives. We also need a fearless independent media to hold them to account, with contributions rooted in proper research. That is why I am personally grateful to the excellent work Skwawkbox has done to hold power to account on the issue of COVID-19 and so much else. Please support them throughout 2022 and beyond.

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