Today (Thursday May 28) new test and trace regimes come into effect in both Scotland and England.
In both cases they will involve yet more unusual curtailments of established civil liberties, and on the basis of a limited understanding of the effectiveness of any programming of testing. In Scotland the system is being called ‘Test and Protect’, and it is designed specifically to contain fresh outbreaks that result from the withdrawal of lockdown measures.
In the new regime, those with Coronavirus type symptoms will be asked to submit to a test. Should they be found positive, they will be required to supply the details of all those they have come into contact with (anyone who has been within two metres of the infected person for 15 minutes or more) who will have to self-isolate, along with the positive-testing person, for 14 days.
The hope is this will create miniature lockdowns around those with the virus, and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed that local lockdowns are an option available to the government.
Policy makers are attempting a balancing act. They desperately want to re-open the economy, but they fear a second peak.
This fear is real and justified. We cannot know at this stage how severe a second wave may be. The second wave of the Spanish Flu (1918-19) killed considerably more than the first. We don’t know enough about the morphology of the virus, nor our state capacities to counter it, to accurately predict if this pattern will reproduce itself in our time.
Governments are mindful of a study form the UN which suggests that effective track-and-trace regimes may cut the number of working days lost to a second peak by half (more bold assertions based on limited evidence, it must be said).
And questions remain about the capacity of the state to deal adequately with massive social programmes including wholescale testing and tracing and, perhaps one day, vaccination. Why has it taken this long to reach the point of a testing system?
Academics Tara McCormack and Lee Jones have described this systematic failure as one of the ‘post-political state’.
The essential pre-requisites for a robust response to a global pandemic, and one that might have been expected from post-WW2 states influenced by social democratic ideas and experiences of planning, could be “…serious stockpiling of personal protective equipment and ventilators (PPE), the creation of reserve testing facilities, and investment in spare industrial capacity to manufacture additional equipment and drugs at short notice.”
The re-organisation of western state systems since the decline and defeat of the post-war consensus has left us with what they describe as a ‘crisis of regulatory governance’: “The capacities of the post-war welfare state have been steadily hollowed out, with a shift to neoliberal, regulatory and networked governance. This system is better at creating the illusion of activity than actually delivering concrete public goods and services.”
For those who have opposed the UK Governments approach (largely mirrored with some deviation by the devolved administrations including the Scottish Government), the arguments now become more complicated. Those who said lockdown measures came too late are clearly vindicated. The two countries with the most deaths per capita in Europe – the UK and Sweden – also had the most dysfunctional lockdown regimes. For further evidence just how bad a lessaiz faire approach can go, it might be worth keeping an eye on the United States.
But lockdown alone is no answer to the continuing dangers. Nor are top-down approaches the most effective or sustainable. Profound questions of governance, and control – especially of the workplace – are unavoidably part of our pandemic future.
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