Ed Miliband – 2020 Speech on Business and Covid-19

Below is the text of the speech made by Ed Miliband, the Labour MP for Doncaster North, in the House of Commons on 12 May 2020.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and add my thanks to all the workers and businesses that have kept our country going during these past few weeks? I say to him that we do not underestimate the challenges of lifting lockdown in certain parts of the economy. We agree that it is in all our interests for it to happen if it can be done safely, and that there are difficult decisions confronting Government, businesses and workers, who have to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. I also want to welcome a number of steps forward in the guidance published last night, which he has talked about in his statement. They do represent progress from previous proposals, and I also welcome the tone of his statement.

However, I also say to the Secretary of State that what really matters to workers and businesses in these highly sensitive and difficult matters is proceeding in an orderly and judicious way. The confusion and mixed messages of the past 48 hours have been ill-advised and avoidable. Let me ask him six specific questions. First, on the impact of the Government’s change of emphasis on going back to work in phase 1, Ministers say that the reproduction rate of the disease—the R number—is currently between 0.5 and 0.9. How many extra people does he expect to go back to work as a result of the Government’s change of emphasis? What is the scientific advice about the impact on the R number?

Secondly, we are being told that in our daily lives, outside our places of work, that we must not come within 2 metres of those from other households, for reasons I understand. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but for workplaces the overview document he has published asks for an observance of 2-metre distancing only “wherever possible”. If it is not possible, the only requirement is that employers should “look into” various mitigation measures. I understand that in some workplaces 2-metre distancing may not be possible, but can he explain why there is no requirement for mitigation if social distancing cannot be observed?

Thirdly, on enforcement, the challenge is, as the Secretary of State said, not the vast majority of employers, who want to do the right thing, but the small minority who do not. I welcome £14 million more for the HSE budget, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the £100 million of cuts over the past decade. Given the challenges of enforcement, will he discuss with the trade unions how ​their tens of thousands of health and safety reps could player a bigger and, I believe, constructive role in ensuring covid-19 compliance, including in non-unionised work- places?

Fourthly, can the Business Secretary now provide an answer for parents who are being asked to go back to work tomorrow but are not deemed “essential” workers and therefore have nobody to look after their children, because they cannot send them to school or nursery? What are parents in those circumstances supposed to do?

Fifthly, can the Secretary of State clarify the position on the 2.5 million workers who are deemed clinically extremely vulnerable and are advised to shield at home until at least the end of June?

Currently, they have no automatic right to be furloughed and many have felt pressured to keep working. As workplaces reopen, the pressure will become greater. To protect their health and provide clarity, would it not make sense to place an obligation on employers to furlough these individuals if they cannot work from home?

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the press conference last night that the reopening of workplaces was dependent on whether they can be made safe for work. Can the Secretary of State confirm that workplaces that are not safe should not reopen tomorrow and that, by law, workers who have a reasonable belief that they will be in danger do not have to be at work?

Finally, the Secretary of State will know that it is the highest paid workers who will generally carry on being able to work from home and lower paid workers who are being asked to go back to work. We also know from yesterday’s figures from the Office for National Statistics that, among men, construction workers have so far been more than twice as likely to die from covid-19 as the average member of the population. I know the Secretary of State will agree that working people are being asked to go back to work to help us all. Whatever the economic pressures, their health must be protected. They deserve to be safe. That is what the Government must take every action to ensure.