The Omicron variant is sweeping Europe, and Britain is the epicentre, because of the refusal of the Johnson government to take timely measures to clamp down on it. After yesterday’s anti-vax/anti-lockdown demo in Central London, fascist thugs gathered outside Downing Street to fight the cops. Among the Union Jacks were banners of the fascist organisation Generation Identity. The slogans raised on the placards were for ‘freedom’ and against ‘tyranny’ – just like the Tory hard right in Parliament.
Ten days ago, Tory ultra Steve Baker, fast emerging as the key ideologue of the Tory hard right, made a speech in Parliament around the theme that the government’s Plan B measures – in reality extremely modest and very late – posed the issue of ‘what kind of civilisation do we want to be?’ Do we want to be a civilisation of individual freedom or one of state regulation and tyranny?
In fact the concept of individual freedom defended by the Tory right is very selective – they have no objection to ultra-repressive legislation like the Police, Crime, and Sentencing Bill or the Nationality and Borders Bill.
Libertarianism is reactionary
Nonetheless, it is on the issue of liberty and freedom that the far-right campaign is being built, and its aim is to bring down Johnson and replace him with a more trusted partisan of the Tory hard right like Liz Truss. As a lockdown becomes more and more inevitable, a Tory hard right putsch is being prepared.
If Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, under pressure from scientists and doctors, bring forward new restrictive measures – of the type being introduced across the whole of Europe – then a major attempt will be made to defeat these measures and oust Johnson.
We should be under no illusions. There are no issues of ‘civil liberty’ at stake here. What is at stake is defence of the NHS against a tidal wave of Omicron cases. Socialists cannot oppose restrictions on some personal ‘freedoms’ in order to defend the interests of society as a whole
Every time governments in the last 40 years have taken action to defend public health by limiting personal ‘freedoms’ (so-called), the Tory right has joined far-right lunatics in campaigning for ‘individual liberty’. Car seatbelts were introduced in 1968, but not made compulsory until 1983. The ‘libertarian’ fringe argues that this should be a matter of ‘personal choice’ – that is, you should have the freedom to kill yourself and your passengers.
Smoking is another classic. The tobacco industry fought a long rearguard battle behind a front organisation called FOREST in opposition to smoking bans in public buildings – only finally introduced in 2006, with, of course, immediate public-health benefits.
Greenlighting anti-social behaviour
A personal anecdote. On 30 September, I had to travel to a medical appointment in central Manchester on the Metrolink, a 40-minute journey. Although Andy Burnham had attempted to hold the line after ‘Freedom Day’ on 12 July, insisting that masks should continue to be worn on the Metrolink, this proved impossible to enforce given the government position that it was now an issue of ‘personal choice’.
By late September last year, only about half of passengers were wearing masks. Most young people especially were not wearing masks. They had got the message that Covid would not affect them severely – an entirely false message and one that encouraged gross ageism. The Tory message – playing to the extreme narcissistic individualism which has itself become a pandemic – was, it won’t hurt me, and I don’t give a shit about the elderly, the disabled, the sick. The removal of any kind of regulation on 12 July had given a green light to absolutely irresponsible ‘personal freedom’.
Socialists are not in favour of individual ‘freedoms’ that are against the collective interests of society (starting, it should be said, with the ‘freedom’ of the rich to dispose of millions of pounds of privately appropriated wealth).
Health workers already have to get vaccinated against a series of infections, so why not against Covid? If care-home workers have to be vaccinated, then why not NHS workers?
As far as vaccine passports are concerned, I cannot use a smart phone because of poor eyesight, and many others cannot for other reasons. I can, however, produce the card I was given that proves I had a booster jab or the certificate I was sent. I can also produce a lateral-flow test result for the previous 24 hours. We should support attempts to clamp down on mass-spreader events at night clubs, sports grounds, and other entertainment venues.
You cannot opt out of society
Incidentally, the crisis in the Premier League is directly linked to the refusal of many young footballers to get vaccinated (who have, in consequence, contracted the virus). In Italy, where 98% of Seria A players have been vaccinated, no games have been cancelled.
Worth saying, too, that it is mainly anti-vaxxers who are causing the crisis in the NHS. People refusing to get vaccinated account for more than 80% of serious-case hospitalisations. This means other people, who cannot get essential treatment, are dying. This is the human meaning of the anti-vaxx bullshit of the Tory right and their fascist allies.
Compulsion should be a last resort. Every effort should be made to counter far-right propaganda and persuade people to protect themselves and protect others. But those who refuse should not be accommodated.
Our key demand should be those repeatedly advanced by behavioural psychologist Steve Reicher on C4 News: financial and other support for people forced to self-isolate, close down or limit their businesses, or work from home. And maximum defence of front-line workers against individuals insisting on their personal ‘freedom’ to refuse vaccination, endanger the lives of others, and clog up the NHS.
The Omicron tsunami is the responsibility of the government for not acting earlier. If a new lockdown occurs, it will be the responsibility of those who argued against the introduction of Plan B sooner.
Forty Tory MPs even voted against compulsory mask-wearing at indoor venues. Labour MPs in the Campaign Groups should never again go through the voting lobby alongside these political Neanderthals.
And no socialist should make any concession to the anti-vaxxers. They represent far-right conspiracy theory, anti-social ‘libertarian’ selfishness, and a bridge to fascism.
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