Keir Starmer – 2020 Speech on Covid-19 and the Winter Plan

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 23 November 2020.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for his telephone call earlier today, when he set out a summary of the proposal.

Let me start with the good news: the tremendous progress on vaccines. Last week, the shadow Chancellor and I went to the Oxford vaccine group at Oxford University. It was inspiring. It was remarkable to see the work that they are doing. Our thanks, and I think those of the whole nation, go to all those who have taken part in the vaccine trials and research. We wish them Godspeed. I also want to make an open offer to the Prime Minister: Labour will provide any support we can in the national effort to deliver the vaccine safely across the country. That is an open offer.

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is seeking a four-nation approach on the arrangements over the Christmas period. We will obviously await details on that, and the evidence that supports the steps being taken, but the four-nation approach is the right approach.

Now for the more difficult bit. The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel; the question today is how we get there and protect lives and livelihoods along the way. The Prime Minister proposes a return to the three-tier system. That is risky, because the previous three-tier system did not work. Tier 1 areas drifted to tier 2, almost all tier 2 areas ended up in tier 3 and those in tier 3 could not see a way out, and we ended up in national lockdown. That was the sad reality of the tiered system before. Nobody wants a repeat of that.

I accept that the new tiers are different from the old tiers, but many of the questions are the same. They are not trick questions. I acknowledge that none of this is easy, but if the Prime Minister is going to carry Parliament and the country on this, they need answering.

First, on the tier system—the Prime Minister touched on this—which local areas will be in each tier? This is the red-hot question. This is the question everybody is going to be asking over their kitchen table tonight. I had a roundtable with business leaders this morning, and it was the first question they asked me. The Prime Minister says it will be decided later this week, possibly Thursday. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that these decisions are taken very quickly and very clearly so that everybody can plan. That is obviously particularly important for the millions who were in restrictions before the national lockdown, because the message to them today seems to be, “You will almost certainly be back where you were before the national lockdown, probably in even stricter restrictions.” People need to know that so that they can plan for that. I really emphasise how important that is for the Prime Minister.

Secondly—the Prime Minister said he wanted uniform rules—will the tiers simply be imposed region by region, come what may, from 3 December, or will there be an element of local consultation and negotiation? I understand the uniform rules, but simply to impose them runs the risk of not getting buy-in from local leaders and local communities, which is incredibly important to people complying with the rules.

Thirdly, how long does the Prime Minister anticipate each local area will remain in each tier? For those that are going to come out of lockdown and almost certainly go back to more restrictions than they left, that is going to be a very pressing question.

Fourthly, will there be a new economic package to accompany these new tiers? There is huge concern among many businesses about their viability in tier 3, particularly a strengthened tier 3, so what new support can they expect? May I touch again on those who are self-employed who are outside the self-employed scheme—the so-called excluded? They will be hearing a message about the next three months in relation to schemes that they are not currently in, and that needs urgently to be addressed.

I turn to the public health impact of this approach, because one of the major reasons that we ended up in a national lockdown was that, in the words of the Government’s scientific advisers—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—test, trace and isolate was only having

“a marginal impact on transmission”.

It is one of the reasons that they suggested a national lockdown.

I know that the Prime Minister will talk about increased testing, mass testing. That is welcome but it is only part of the story, because the other two parts—trace and isolate—are not fit for purpose. SAGE advised, and continues to advise, that for trace and isolate to be effective, the percentage of contacts traced needs to be about 80%. It is currently nowhere near that level. It has never been near that level, and the figures are not getting any better. The latest figures actually show that every week, about 120,000 close contacts—that is, people who should be self-isolating—are not being traced by the system. The likelihood of getting the virus under control when 120,000 people who should be self-isolating are moving around their communities is very low.

Only a fraction of people able to self-isolate are doing so when asked to. We said to the Prime Minister that this needed to be fixed in the period of the national lockdown, and it has not been. It was barely mentioned in the Prime Minister’s statement today, and many people will be forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister has given up on trace and isolate and is about to abandon that scheme altogether to reach out for a different scheme—mass testing. It is very important that we understand that if we are going into a tiered system, abandoning trace and isolate, or not getting trace and isolate where it should be, we are running a major risk.

This is not about knocking those on the frontline or knocking those working on track and trace; it is about being grown up about risk. If we are reintroducing a three-tier system without having fixed trace and isolate, that is a major risk and we all need to acknowledge it, because it raises the million-dollar question: how confident is the Prime Minister that the approach he is proposing today will keep the R rate below 1? If it does not, the infections will go up. They will go back out of control and we could well be back in a national lockdown. That is the million-dollar question.

Labour has backed the Prime Minister on all the big decisions that the Government have had to take to protect public health, including the two national lockdowns. We have done so because we want there to be a national consensus on such difficult issues and because we will always put public health first. Ideally, I would like to be in a position to do so again, but there are huge gaps in this plan, huge uncertainties and huge risks. We will await the detail. We want the Prime Minister to get this right. He has got a week to do so. Will he start by answering these straightforward questions?