Keir Starmer – 2020 Speech on Public Health

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, on 4 November 2020.

I know that a lot of Members want to speak, particularly on the Government Benches, and so I will keep my remarks brief.

Nobody votes for these regulations today with anything other than a heavy heart, on both sides of the House. I did not come into Parliament to restrict people’s freedoms, ​to prevent people meeting their friends and their loved ones, or to decide when people can and cannot leave their home or how many people may attend a funeral. I do not want Parliament to be closing businesses, gyms, bars or places of worship. Frankly, I do not want Parliament to be legislating on any of these issues, least of all after the British public have made so many enormous sacrifices already.

Parliament probably should have had more time to scrutinise the regulations, to amend them and to consult. There are going to be anomalies and inconsistencies that we cannot amend and probably could have been ironed out. I am very concerned about the impact on businesses who spent thousands of pounds becoming covid-secure, doing everything the Government asked, only now to be forced to shut. However, while these regulations are not in any way desirable or perfect, they are now necessary because the Government have lost control of the virus, and we will support them.

The country is at—indeed, we are several weeks past—the tipping point in the fight against the virus. We must never forget that on Monday, 397 people lost their lives to covid-19, more than 1,000 patients were on ventilators and there were over 20,000 positive cases. To anybody who disputes the trajectory of the virus or what the cost of inaction would be, I would point out that when SAGE warned 44 days ago that if we did not act at that time there would be catastrophic consequences, there were then, six weeks or so ago, 11 deaths from covid-19, just over 4,000 infections and 181 people on ventilators. That is not graphs. That is not projections. That is the grim facts in the past few weeks, and we know that the figures double, then double and then double again. That direction of travel has been clear for some time, and I am afraid the reality is that the two pillars of the Government’s strategy—the £12 billion track and trace and the regional restrictions—have been washed away by the second wave. If we are to have any chance of getting the virus back under control, to prevent many more people from falling ill or losing their loved ones and to protect the NHS, we need to take decisive action now.

There are some wider points I want to raise, and I suspect that they are shared points. There needs to be additional support during the lockdown. This is going to be incredibly hard for the British public. Millions of people tonight are really anxious about what will happen over the coming weeks. They are anxious on the health front for themselves and their friends and family, and anxious about their jobs. That is why we called for the restrictions to be put in place some weeks ago when there could have been a shorter period, which would have been better on the health front, with fewer lives lost, and better on the economic front.

More broadly, I was struck by the words of the chief executive of Mind, who warned earlier this week that the second lockdown was likely to be even harder on people’s mental health. We know that there has already been a large increase in demand for mental health services, so there needs to be emergency support in the next few weeks to address this. I think that this is a cross-party issue that we can work on together. I am also concerned about domestic violence, which was one of the issues in the first lockdown. We saw an appalling rise in domestic violence during that period. The charity Refuge reported a 50% increase in demands to its helpline, and there was a 300% increase in visits to its ​website. I passionately believe that we need to do much more as a country and as a Parliament to tackle this, and that must start with a clear, well-resourced plan for addressing domestic abuse during this lockdown and this winter.

I want to turn to the question of faith, which has already been raised. These regulations will have a serious impact on faith communities and places of worship. There is real concern across faiths about the lack of consultation, and I hope that the Government can urgently address that, including by convening the places of worship taskforce.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

The leaders of every single faith community have now written to the Government asking for the evidence behind the closure of churches during the next four weeks. The fact is there is almost certainly no evidence. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that all the faith communities —Muslims, Jews, Christians—have really done their best to comply, through cleansing and in every other way, and will he demand of the Government now that the churches, mosques and temples are opened as soon as possible?

Keir Starmer

On the question of whether all faiths have done their level best to comply, I do agree. A huge amount of effort has gone in, in places of worship and many other places, to try to defeat the virus. The British public have done a huge amount, and so have all the institutions and faith organisations, to try to keep the virus down, but the truth is that it is out of control. The taskforce needs to be convened so that these issues can be discussed during the next few days and weeks, because this is a very deep issue for many people.

Tim Farron

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making some very important points. Does he accept that, for churches and other faith communities, although the buildings themselves may not be sacred, what goes on within them is? We have noticed over the last few months the importance of verbal and non-verbal cues when people are gathered together, which allows them to help one another when they are mentally and emotionally struggling. While I understand the logic behind the closure of these places, it is potentially hugely damaging to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Does he agree that this needs to be reviewed at the soonest possible opportunity?

Keir Starmer

I do agree that it should be reviewed as soon as possible. I think that is probably a shared sentiment across the House, as nobody wants these measures to be put in place. It is a bit like the care homes issue that I raised earlier. We all know the risks to care homes from the first phase of the pandemic, and we all know the toll that the next few weeks are going take—not only on those in care homes, but on the families who are desperate to visit those in care homes. That is why I think it may be possible, on a cross-party basis, to find a way to have safe visits during the next few weeks. There are very difficult questions.

Let me turn to the question of homelessness, which is already a moral emergency in this country. The lockdown now comes as the weather has turned, the winter is setting in and sleeping rough is more dangerous than ever. It is therefore vital that the Government restart the ​“Everybody In” programme and reintroduce the evictions ban so that we do not see a further spike in homelessness. That needs to be done urgently.

More broadly, the Prime Minister needs to show that he has a plan B on 2 December to control the virus and rebuild the economy and a clear strategy to ensure that we never, ever get into this situation again. The explanatory notes in the regulations show just how vague the plans for 2 December are, as they say: “It is expected that at the end of the 28-day period, the previous alert levels introduced in October will once again be brought into force. This policy is subject to review”. There are millions of people who have been in restrictions for many months who will be very worried about that paragraph.

Let us take Leicester as an example. Leicester has been in restrictions for over 120 days. It is very hard to make the argument to the people of Leicester that the restrictions are working. It is very hard to make the argument to the people of Greater Manchester, who were in the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions for six weeks, that the tiered system is working. That is because the public’s experience of the tiered system is that areas that are in tier 1 or the equivalent end up in tier 2, and that areas that have been in tier 2, sometimes for weeks on end, drift towards tier 3. If the tier system worked, tier 2 areas would go back to tier 1; that would be success. But, actually, the vast majority—if not all of them—have gone up to tier 3.

The Prime Minister sometimes says that this is a party political issue, but it is not. If the idea at the end of the exercise on 2 December is to go back to the system that we are leaving tonight, when that system—certainly in tiers 1 and 2—simply is not working, that is very hard for the public, because they know that that is not going to keep them safe, they know that it puts further health and economic matters at issue and they know that it means that Christmas is not going to be what it could be.

Neil O’Brien

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about my constituency. I gently point out to him that during the period of the most restrictions in Leicester, the number of cases did come down from 160 to 25 per 100,000. That shows that tough controls of the kind that we are about to vote to bring in today do work.

Mr Speaker

Let me help people. A few Members have now intervened a couple of times. We want to get everybody in. If they go down the list, I am sure that they will appreciate that.

Keir Starmer

I have looked at the Leicester figures frequently; they do go up and down, but Leicester has never come out of the restrictions. It is a point that I have been making, and it is not a party political one. The point is that if an area is in restrictions and does not come out, the restrictions are not working. If an area was in tier 2 restrictions and ends up in tier 3, tier 2 did not work. To go back to that system does not make any sense. For heaven’s sake, we have got to use the next four weeks to come up with something better than that for 2 December, otherwise we will do the usual thing, which is to pretend that something is going to happen on 2 December, and then, when we get there, find out ​that what we said would happen will not happen. I can predict what is going happen because it has happened so many times in the past seven months: the Prime Minister says, “x won’t happen”; x will happen; it does happen; and we start all over again. It is not fair to the British public to pretend that something is going to happen on 2 December.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)

Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman confounding his own logic? He has spent the past several days berating the Government for not introducing a circuit breaker, but at no time did I hear him explain how we would leave the circuit breaker, which it seems to me was simply the half-term holiday rebadged.

Keir Starmer

The lower the rate of infection and the lower the admissions, the more chance there is to get the virus under control. That is why you have to go early. If you want to safeguard the economy, go early. How on earth has it helped the British economy to delay and to go into a lockdown for four weeks when, on 21 September, SAGE was saying it could be two to three weeks? How on earth has it helped the British economy to miss the chance to do lockdown over half-term?

All Members will have seen the data about schools. We all want schools to stay open. How on earth did it make sense to miss half-term? Most schools would happily have said, “We’ll get up early—the Thursday before half-term—and we’ll use Monday and Tuesday as inset days,” and we could probably have got the best part of two weeks of schools being closed naturally, because of half-term, and have the lockdown over then. I do not think there can be anybody in this House who does not think that would have been a better period for a circuit break, lockdown—call it what you like.

It has not helped the economy to waste three weeks. If, at the end of those three weeks, the Prime Minister could say, “Well, there we are—the tiered system is now working, and I’m going to stick with it,” that would be one thing, but the Prime Minister is now saying, “I am going to do the lockdown,” which is failure. That is failure.

The next four weeks cannot be wasted—cannot be wasted. We have got to fix test, trace and isolate. The last figures show that, in just one week, 113,000 contacts were missed by the system. Four in 10 people who should be contacted are not being contacted under the system. If you are not contacted, you cannot isolate. It is not just a number; that is 113,000 people walking round our communities when they should have been self-isolating. Hands up if you think that has helped to control the virus.

We have been on about the track, trace and isolate system for months. The promises come by the wheelbarrow, the delivery never. Only 20% of people who should be isolating are doing it. Something is going wrong. Just continually pushing away challenge and pretending the problem does not exist is a huge part of the problem. Those figures have got to turn around, and they have got to turn around in the next four weeks. If we get to 2 December and those problems are still in the system, we will be going round this circuit for many months to come. If this is not fixed in the next four weeks, there are massive problems.

The Government have also got to stop sending constant mixed messages: “Go back to work, even if you can work from home,” or “Civil servants, get to work,” only a ​week later to say, “Stay at home.” The constant changing of the economic plans is creating even more uncertainty. There have been huge mistakes made in recent weeks during this pandemic. We have been told so many times by the Prime Minister, often on a Wednesday afternoon, that there is a plan to prevent a second wave—it is working. Well, there was not, and it did not.

Now, less than four months after the Prime Minister told us that this would all be over by Christmas, we are being asked to approve emergency regulations to shut the country down. That is a terrible thing for the country to go through, but there is not any excuse for inaction or for allowing the virus to get further out of control, so Labour will act in the national interest, and we will vote for these restrictions—these regulations—tonight.