The new “test, trace, isolate, support” strategy announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday was an important milestone in Scotland’s Covid-19 crisis. The paper sets out a distinctive Scottish approach to community tracing and testing, and thus is the first strategic disjuncture from the UK response to this crisis. As Common Weal head of policy & research Craig Dalzell points out in a detailed analysis of the paper, there is a substantive critique of the UK Government’s app-based contact tracing response.
“All the problems with data protection and dissemination aside, the major limit of app-based testing is simply that there aren’t enough smartphone users in the country to reach the kind of coverage we’d need for effective tracing, especially among the older demographics considered most vulnerable to succumbing to the pandemic…I’m glad to see that the Scottish Government is forming its strategy without making assumptions about any app-based solution,” Dalzell says.
Then, the “support” part of the strategy makes it clear that the contact tracers are going to be more than bean-counters, they are going to act on a community-by-community basis to provide the means by which people can isolate in safety and security. This speaks to calls by many public health experts for contact tracing to be locally-driven.
There are problems. Dalzell argues that the proposal for 2,000 contact tracers is far too few and “doesn’t really compare positively to plans being published elsewhere.” But this is a step forward – it’s clear that a planned approach to dealing with this crisis using data on a decentralised basis and led from Bute House not 10 Downing Street is now being aimed for. It will take until the end of May before it’s all up and running, and it’s difficult to see how the lockdown can be eased at least until the system is well-established. Remember cases have to be low or the contact tracing system to have even a chance of keeping up with the virus.
Which brings us to what to do about the Scottish economy as lockdown conditions endure for what looks like being more than two months. Just as the argument for controlling and suppressing the spread of the virus through a planned, data-led approach led by the Scottish Government can be fought for and won, so can the idea of a “track, train and employ” approach to stop the spread of unemployment in Scotland.
The scourge of mass unemployment is a huge threat to the health and wellbeing of Scottish society, and there is no reason it cannot be stopped in its tracks like the virus if we are willing to adjust our thinking away from the logic of “labour markets” and towards the idea of “labour redeployment”. Identifying everyone who has been made unemployed – most obviously in hospitality and tourism – a labour redeployment scheme could speak to them about what positions are available in their local area and what they would like to do, training/re-hiring on that basis. Businesses operating on fair work principles should be able to enter the scheme on the ‘demand’ side of the labour-equation. But government should also be looking at creating new positions for work that is not currently being done but is much needed – in home-care, in mental health services, in the planned extension of early years (though that has been delayed), in community asset development (making use of run-down town centres), in building the Green New Deal, and so forth. Mass unemployment does not happen because there is a lack of work to be done, it happens because private investment (most importantly, finance capital) retreats from market activity. Where capital retreats, the state must step in and support the building up of sustainable local economies in communities that otherwise will be left abandoned to the despair of unemployment and poverty.
Just as we cannot rely on a vaccine to save us from the virus, relying on ‘the market’ to click back into gear is hopeless, and will only lead to the inequalities of the pre-Covid19 world being further entrenched in the post-Covid19 one. We are already seeing it happen; as our lives move increasingly through digital networks the data plutocrats see their wealth swell. US billionaires added $282 billion to their total wealth in the first 23 days of the lockdown, and the richest of them all, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, added over $20 billion alone. Have a look at this website which shows Bezos’ wealth-to-scale – the extent to which we already live a global plutocracy is scary. Bezos’ company has positioned itself in a monopoly position at the centre of global digital infrastructure, but what it won’t do is create well-paid jobs in Scotland, rooted in local communities. Amazon-isation will be robots delivering you goods made in a different country to home, from huge automated regional distribution hubs. People and place will largely miss out altogether. This idea that the future markets of globalisation just need to be adapted to for Scotland to prosper in this new world is nonsense. No one is coming over the hill to save our economy, especially not Jeff Bezos and co. We should take our data back from the tech plutocrats, and use it to plan a better future.
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