OPINION

A year of covid-19 and lessons must be learned

As we approach early February 2021 amid another national lockdown, it is staggering to recall it is almost a full year ago that the first case of covid-19 became known in our city.

There is no doubt that our lives have changed dramatically following the rapid acceleration of the covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, and untold grief lies behind horrific statistics. This week the country passed a staggering 100,000 people dead. To put that into some context, if that were here it would mean 1 in 3 people in our city dead.

This month the UK topped over 1,800 deaths recorded in one day – a stark figure when we consider that back in March 2020, the first national lockdown was called when the UK death toll had reached 335 people.

Given the shocking numbers of people who have since gone on to contract the covid-19 virus, and sadly lose their lives, it could not be more clear why families of the bereaved are joining together to demand a national inquiry into how we got here.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has this week said he is sorry – but it will offer little comfort to those still mourning a death that could have been prevented. To enact the lessons learned, it’s vital that government are held to account for a litany of missed opportunities.

Against increasingly loud warnings from experts, the Prime Minister did not attend his first covid-19 meeting until March 2020, announcing that he “shook hands with everybody”.

Some £22 billion was spent by the Conservative government on a system that included now widely condemned private, outsourced contracts – despite evidence showing the far-reaching effectiveness of local public health teams.

The government was also late to buy effective protective equipment, issue advice on masks, and time and time again it failed to issue clear advice on schools.

When the government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke covid-19 safety guidance in making his now infamous trips, no sanctions were levied, nor condemnation issued.

Most damagingly of all, lockdown 1 was broken. Human rights organisation Amnesty International has branded decisions that led to 18,500 people dying in care homes within the first three months of the pandemic a “violation of human rights”.

Incredibly, the government still isn’t clear on how to manage incoming new cases at the borders – a position that could not be further from other comparable countries around the world whether it’s an island population like New Zealand, where there have been just 25 deaths, or a similar-sized population like Thailand where there have been 76 deaths. It didn’t need to be like this.

Covid-19 has also exposed historic failures to address inequality. For families already in poverty, soaring unemployment and botched welfare benefit “reforms” like universal credit left many without a desperately needed lifeline.

Remember, when universal credit was introduced locally, it plunged people into immediate rent arrears.

A report by the Child Poverty Action Group has found that even for those families whose employment had not been disrupted by the pandemic, additional caring responsibilities, problems accessing financial support and other services means that three quarters of families are finding it hard to manage financially.

Picture by David McHugh / Brighton Pictures

The council and countless community groups and residents have mobilised quickly and consistently over the last year to support those in need of help throughout this pandemic.

The community hub works to ensure support is provided for those who need food, who are struggling with bills or who need mental health support.

To recover, I know that we also need to look to a better future. This month we secured a detailed, costed plan to improve the insulation of council homes – known as “retrofitting” – a programme that will also create jobs.

A permanent team is now in place to support those who would benefit from advice on fuel bills and energy saving.

We have secured agreement to reduce the cost of council tax for those on low incomes. We continue to provide business grant support and this week we will once again speak out to demand better support for all those excluded from the government’s job retention schemes.

Shirley Killick, 85, of Patcham was the first to receive the dose at the Brighton Centre – Picture by David McHugh / Brighton Pictures

As we reflect on an intensely difficult year, I remain focused on how we control the pandemic locally and how our city can recover.

This week our city’s own large-scale covid vaccination site opened at the Brighton Centre. The NHS manage the vaccination programme and will contact people when it is their turn – and there is no doubt this is an important milestone.

Yet while vaccination is one part of the picture, this week we know that thanks to the efforts of residents, our local covid-19 rate has gone down.

While the government may be late or fail to act, it’s clear our city continues to fight to drive down this deadly pandemic and support our communities into the future.

Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty is the Green leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.

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