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Journalist Rachel Shabi discusses Britain’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, the precarious state of the underfunded NHS, and whether new Labour leader Keir Starmer will prove a viable alternative to Boris Johnson.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Rachel Shabi appears in this interview as a paid contributor for TRNN.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. British prime minister Boris Johnson, who pushed a plan for herd immunity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, has been hospitalized and admitted to intensive care, battling covid-19 symptoms. Johnson’s conservative government’s response to the pandemic has been widely criticized for being much slower than other European countries to implement policies like social distancing and restricting travel to help stop the spread of the disease. On March 3rd Johnson even boasted about shaking hands with Covid-19 patients.

Boris Johnson: I can tell you that I’m shaking hands. I was in the hospital the other night where I think there were a few, there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know. And I continue to shake hands.

Jaisal Noor: The UK has over 52,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 and has surpassed 5,300 deaths. Meanwhile, on April 4th the opposition labor party, elected a new leader, Keir Starmer, who will succeed at Jeremy Corbyn. Well for more, we go to England to speak with journalist Rachel Shabi. Her latest piece in The Guardian, UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity experts say. Thousands of council workers could have been deployed by the government but were not asked to. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rachel Shabi: Thank you so much for having me.

Jaisal Noor: So first of all, we know Boris Johnson is still in the ICU. He’s been given oxygen. The same person who as we just heard, as recently as of March 3rd, was boasting about shaking hands with coronavirus patients. He had pushed for this plan of herd immunity, which would have meant thousands of people getting sick and dying, to build a resistance to this and he’s since withdrawn that plan. But can you give us your response to this situation England is in? And we were just talking off camera, we see a lot of parallels between the situation in the US and the UK.

Rachel Shabi: That’s right. Well, it’s a terrible situation in the UK, when we heard last night that prime minister Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care. It was really shocking and unsettling for everyone. I mean, obviously, even for his political adversaries. I’ve been an opponent of his policies and should go without saying, wish him a long and healthy life and wish him a smooth recovery. But it was extraordinary last night, so many people I spoke with this morning said they had a restless night. They woke up several times just thinking of his health, not just on a human level, but because it would be such a crisis for the UK to be without a prime minister in the midst of this terrible pandemic. And I and others, remember three weeks ago, right at the point at which so many of us were so frustrated with Boris Johnson and his government for being so unserious it seemed, about the pandemic that was just starting to hit our shores, asking for more measures, better messaging, more clarity.
And could see Boris Johnson joke about, say he’d shaken hands with people, people who had coronavirus in hospital. And were watching his government just keep clustering together and parliament, the rest of parliament to be fair. So sending out exactly the wrong message. And I remember feeling so frustrated with that, but never did I imagine that he would be a victim of that unserious messaging and seeming reluctance to really implement the sort of severity of measures and messaging that was required.

Jaisal Noor: So Rachel, in your latest piece for The Guardian, you write about how the British government really missed an opportunity to get ahead of this crisis. They could have deployed thousands of workers on a local level to help contain this and they missed that opportunity. That is the same thing we’re hearing in the United States. And now of course, Johnson has abandoned this herd immunity. The reality of this, obviously hit him really close to home and we’ve seen a similar sort of track with the US government. But the question now is, has all this come too late? Because now this is out in the community. The last I checked something like 97% of these new cases are community transmissions. So they don’t know how people are getting this. And we know that hospitals in places like New York, are totally overwhelmed. They expect to run out of supplies in a matter of hours or even at most, days now. Is it too little too late now?

Rachel Shabi: Yeah. I mean it’s horrendous hearing the reports from New York, it’s utterly heartbreaking to hear the situation there and the situation here as well. Intensive care units, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed. It’s interesting that you say Boris Johnson abandoned the herd immunity. It’s more than that. It’s that the government is kind of denying that they ever did follow that policy. They’re kind of saying, “No we didn’t, that didn’t happen.” And there are interviews of government advisors, including medical officers, explaining that strategy. But I think the worry for all of us is that it is too late. The lockdown when it came, did arrive too late and then by that time, of course, we had not made time. The government had not prepared for something that we could see coming down the line. I mean unlike other the countries, we had relatively the benefit of time to prepare and it seems that, looking at the situation now, it seems that the government did not prepare.
So we don’t have enough testing available. We don’t have protective equipment for frontline health workers, who we are sending and exposing to, enormous risk. A few of whom have already lost their lives trying to care for others. And you’re right, the whole situation with testing and tracing, did not happen with the rigor and in the volume that we’ve seen happen in other countries, at a time when it might have contained or leveled out the spread of the infection. And it’s also an ongoing conversation because of course now countries are looking at how do we exit this lockdown? At what stage can we start to ease that lockdown?
And it’s at that stage that you also have to have testing and tracing. You want to know what’s going on in the community. You want to be able to, if you’ve eased down, if you’ve eased the lockdown and there are outbreaks of infection, you want to be able to dampen them down instantly. You can’t really do that unless you’re testing, tracing and isolating. So it’s very much an ongoing problem that the government here does seem to be very much in reactive mode, playing catch up and on delay and that is, the fear is, having grave consequences in terms of life.

Jaisal Noor: And I wanted to ask. So I guess one of the key differences between the US and the United Kingdom, is that the UK has this National Health Service. So we know no one’s going to go bankrupt from this treatment, but we also know that the health NHS has face cutbacks for years now. Can you talk a little bit about the situation, you mentioned the shortage of supplies, but what is the situation for hospitals and for nurses and other frontline workers? When I was there maybe 18 months ago, to talk to doctors that were talking about the shortage, already facing a shortage of resources even before this.

Rachel Shabi: That’s right. And I have to say that looking at it from the UK, where we all feel very lucky to have the National Health Service, it’s one of the great institutions of the UK. And it is extraordinary to watch the US, it just seems unfathomable that healthcare should be paid for in that way. And especially at this time, it is excruciating to watch that in the US. But you’re right, that in the UK the NHS has been underfunded some time now. It’s been following this real roll back the state ideology that the UK has been pursuing for some time now, whereby the less the state gets involved the better. And market efficiencies are all about streamlining everything so that there is no spare capacity anywhere, but actually you need that spare capacity in a system for it to work efficiently. And of course it becomes critical at a time when you were facing a crisis like a pandemic.
So we are seeing the NHS, who for years, have been worrying about shortages, shortages of staff, of doctors, of nurses, shortages of hospital beds, shortages of intensive care capacity and now it seems also ventilators. They have been warning for years, every winter it’s been horrendous because the hospitals have not been able to cope with the increased demand. And so now we are seeing in very stark terms, what that looks like. And we’ve also just had a glimpse as well into incredible work that health workers are doing at this time, just exposing themselves again, to great danger, great risk and facing an incredibly stressful and stark reality inside those intensive care units right now.

Jaisal Noor: And we wanted to ask you about the labor party because after last year’s crushing defeat, long time head of the labor party, Jeremy Corbyn, stepped aside. Keir Starmer won a big victory in the local election. He just won that election on April 4th. He’s very different than Jeremy Corbyn in a number of ways, Corbyn built this base of sort of putting forth these radical ideas and really talking about investing and investing in things like the NHS and maybe socializing industry. He had a really sort of extensive socialist platform, but he did face a crushing defeat in those last elections. Talk about who Keir Starmer is and what kind of vision he’s going to be putting forward. Because we know that at least online, some people sort of criticized his response, sort of. Some people said that he’s not as willing to take on the conservatives as much as Jeremy Corbyn might have. And do you think you’ll be able to really provide an alternative to the conservative government and give people something else to sort of … A real alternative? Yes.

Rachel Shabi: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s one that all of us here are asking of course, because this government always needs a robust and critical opposition, but that becomes really urgent and vital at time when there’s a global pandemic and there’s a concern over how the government is managing that because everybody’s health relies on that. And it’s extraordinary that Jeremy Corbyn, he did revitalize the labor party. The membership increased incredibly, by an incredible amount, almost half a million members I think it is now because so many people were enthused and animated by him taking the party to the left. In terms of policy, lots of people were inspired to sign up for that because they could see that the socioeconomic situation in the UK, the inequalities, the insecure work, the low paid work, the housing shortage, all these things needed a system rechange, that it wasn’t enough to tinker around the edges, that you actually needed to intervene as the state and rewire an economy that was failing so many people.
And Jeremy Corbyn inspired people to join the party on that basis. But of course now that he has left and there are plenty of valid criticisms of his leadership as well, but now that he has left, it does feel like an end of an era and people are wondering what kind of leadership Keir Starmer will bring in. One of the things about him is that he’s not from the same wing of the party as Jeremy Corbyn, He’s not from that radical left. But he’s quite hard to read exactly where he is and on the one hand that’s slightly frustrating, but on the other hand, that possibly means that he will be able to appeal to all factions of the party and unite the party in a way that’s really quite desperately needed because it has been a fairly divisive few years.
He has committed in policy terms, during his own leadership campaign, he committed in policy terms to, basically adhering to labor’s 2017 manifesto. So yes, to state intervention, yes, to public ownership, yes, to higher rates of tax for the highest earners. Those kinds of policies. But it now remains to be seen whether he will stick to those pledges and honor those commitments. Especially at a time when it’s been extraordinary to watch, this global pandemic has not only fully exposed the problems in the way society has been running, but also has demanded a response that is very much like what the radical left of politics in the UK and the US, has been proposing for the last few years.

Jaisal Noor: Yeah. We’re in a similar situation here where we have the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, and a lot of people are asking, where he is and why he’s continuing to oppose single payer healthcare, when it’s crises like this that really show why it’s so badly needed. Well, Rachel Shabi, thank you so much for joining us and providing your insight.

Rachel Shabi: Thank you. Absolute pleasure to be with you. Take good care. Stay well.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

Production: Genevieve Montinar, Will Arenas, Shir Hever, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Will Arenas

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.