The statement made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, on 1 December 2020.
Thank you Mr Speaker.
Can I start by welcoming the fall in infection numbers, the number of people being admitted to hospital, and crucially that the R rate is now below 1.
Before this lockdown, the infection rate was doubling every two weeks, the R-number was above 1 in every part of England, and the number of people in hospital was going up sharply across the country. In other words, the virus had been allowed to get out of control.
And if anyone doubts a lockdown was necessary – I would point out: Since 2nd November – when this lockdown started, 10,711 people have tragically died in England within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19. In the last week there were an average of 460 deaths per day. Those are appalling numbers. Every one a tragedy.
So we can argue about why this lockdown didn’t happen sooner. When the infection rate was lower. As we argued for several weeks ago. But it’s clear that the lockdown was necessary and has helped to reduce infections.
I also want to welcome further progress on vaccines. I have nothing but admiration for our scientists. And for the amazing progress that’s been made. This will go down as one of the great moments for science in this country. I saw this for myself a couple of weeks ago at Oxford University.
A vaccine may now be in sight, and we must do everything we can to encourage take-up and make sure that it’s rolled out quickly, fairly and safely.
But Mr Speaker, the questions before the House today are these: How can we save as many lives and livelihoods as possible until we reach the light at the end of the tunnel? And are the measures the PM announced today going to: Control the virus; And provide the right support for the communities worst affected by these restrictions?
Labour has supported the Government in two national lockdowns. And I recognise the need for continuing restrictions. I also recognise that the tiers have been toughened – as it was obvious to everyone that the previous tiers were a one-way street. But I’m far from convinced by what the PM said today.
In particular, the economic package is nowhere near sufficient to support the communities worst affected. And who have been suffering now for many months.
I also fear that without the right health measures in place, in particular a working trace and isolate system, there are real risks that this plan is incapable of controlling the virus this winter.
I want to set out this out in more detail. The first point I want to make is this: We’ve been here before. On 10th June the PM first told of us his “whack a mole” strategy to control local infections. We were told these would be so effective they would only last a few days or weeks. Far from reality. Leicester, for example, has had 154 days of restrictions. By the time these regulations run out on 2nd Feb – it will be 217 days. So that didn’t work.
Then on 22 September – with infections rising in 19 of the 20 areas then under restrictions, the PM announced new restrictions including the rule of 6, which the PM told the House would: “curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to 1”. That didn’t work.
Two weeks later, 12 October, with the precise opposite happening the PM introduced a three-tier system. Again, we were assured this would work.
The PM told the House that: “would deliver the reduction in the R rate, locally and regionally, that we need”. That didn’t work.
Fourth attempt: 19 days later: in a hurried press conference, the PM announced that the tiered system had failed, the virus was out of control and a national lockdown was now “unavoidable”.
The reason this all matters is that there is a pattern here: the PM has a record of over-promising, and under-delivering. Short-term decisions are taken, that then bump into the harsh reality of this virus. So a new plan is conjured up a few weeks later, and with even bigger promises that never materialise.
After eight months of this, the PM should not be surprised that we – and many of the British people – are less than convinced this time around.
The second point I want to make is this: The public health risk of the PM’s approach is significant. The prevalence of the virus remains high. The R-rate is only just below one. We know the virus is at its most deadly during the cold winter months. And that the NHS of course at that point will be under its greatest strain.
So if we are to keep R below 1 during the winter – and not waste the progress made in the last four weeks, we have to proceed with precision and caution.
But instead of levelling with the British public, the PM has spent the weekend telling his backbenchers that the plan is all about: “loosening restrictions across the country” and fuelling a promise that within days, local areas have the prospect of dropping from one Tier to another. In my view, that’s highly unlikely.
It’s obvious that the new Tier One may slow but won’t prevent a rise in infections. And it’s far from certain that the new Tier Two can hold the rate of infection. I hope it does – but it depends on other factors all falling into place at the same time.
And – although like everyone else we want the chance to see our loved ones at Christmas – I’m not convinced that the Government has a plan in place to prevent a spike in infections over the New Year.
I recognise this is difficult, and that any system would have risk. But that brings me to my third point: The risk we face today is so much higher, because the PM has failed to fix the major problems with the now £22bn Track and Trace system.
Before the PM simply brushes this point aside – again – let me remind the House that one of the major reasons that SAGE advised a circuit break back in September was because Track and Trace was only having “a marginal impact on transmission”. So if we’re to control the virus, this really matters. And the PM having his head in the sand isn’t helping.
I know the PM has made much of the advances in testing. I recognise that and I hope it helps tackle this virus. But as the Chief Scientific Officer said: “testing is important, but of course it only matters if people isolate as well”.
PM knows only a fraction of people are able to self-isolate when asked to do so. But he still hasn’t addressed the reasons for this. Including the huge gaps in support: I know PM has announced a change for those notified by the app – a ridiculous omission in the first place. But it doesn’t affect basic eligibility.
Only one in eight workers qualify for the one-off £500 self-isolation support. Anyone not receiving that has to rely on Statutory Sick Pay which is the equivalent of £13 a day. That’s a huge problem. People want to do the right thing. But for many, there’s a real fear that self-isolation means a huge loss of income that they simply can’t afford.
And that’s not the end of the problems with track and trace. On tracing, the latest figures show: 137,000 close contacts missed by the system in one week. That is the highest weekly figure yet. And it means that over 500,000 close contacts have been missed by the system in the last month.
That’s not just a statistic, it means that last month alone, there were half a million people who should have been self-isolating but instead were moving around with their friends, their families and their communities. That’s a huge gap in our defences. I raise this every week. Every week the PM pretends it’s getting better, but it never does. And the PM now seems almost to have given up on it – and to be hoping instead that mass testing can solve this on its own. Again, blind optimism – not a plan.
My fourth point is about the level of economic support provided. Have to say to the PM: It’s hard to overstate the level of anger about this – particularly in communities that have been in restrictions for months on end.
Yesterday I was on a virtual visit to the North West talking to local businesses. Their emotions ranged from deep disappointment at the Government, to raw anger that the PM and Chancellor just aren’t listening. And don’t get the impact that months of endless restrictions have had on local communities and on people’s lives.
In March, the Chancellor vowed to do “whatever it takes” to support households and businesses. But there’s now been 6 economic plans in 9 months. And the level of support around this latest package is still insufficient.
First, it doesn’t fairly reflect the difficulties faced by businesses across the country. Three aspects to this: Let me start with the Additional Restrictions Grant. That gives a flat figure to a local area regardless of how long it’s been in restrictions. So, Greater Manchester, which will be on its 40th day of severe restrictions when it enters Tier 3 tomorrow, has received the same one-off support as the Isle of Wight, which went into restrictions far later and will emerge tomorrow into Tier 1.
That can’t be fair.
The second aspect is that this grant doesn’t take account of the number of business that need support in each area. So our great cities are being asked to spread the same sum far more thinly. That’s also that’s clearly unfair.
The third aspect: even allowing for today’s announcement on pubs – which I think is the definition of ‘small beer. Many businesses are now receiving less support than they did during the first wave. That’s a huge strain for many businesses – particularly after so long under restrictions, and it makes no economic sense for the Government to allow them to go to the wall.
The second major point on economic support is that millions of self-employed people remain unfairly excluded from Government support schemes. Again, there’s nothing in this latest package to address this.
I’ve raised this many times with the PM – every time he chooses to talk about those he is helping and ignore the millions he isn’t. Reality: the government have had 8 months to fix this and they’ve failed.
The third point about the economic package is that the Government must remove the uncertainty around furlough and rule out changing the scheme again in January. The Chancellor’s made this this mistake before. That uncertainty caused real economic damage. He can’t make the same mistake again.
So taken together the business and economic support just doesn’t stack up.
But I also want to make a wider point on the economic damage this pandemic – and this Government – have done to our economy. Last week’s Autumn Statement laid bare the huge and worsening economic cost of this crisis.
I know there are those who say that is a reason to end restrictions. But the reality is – you can’t protect the economy if you lose control of the virus. That just leads to more uncertainty. More restrictions. And more long-term damage to the economy. And it’s this failure to get control of the virus, or to take a long-term approach to shielding our economy that’s left the UK with the worst recession in the G7 and the highest death total in Europe.
Fifth and final reason for scepticism about the Government’s approach is this: messaging and priorities. The last 48 hours have been a summary of the mistakes the Government has made in this crisis. The PM is fatally split between appeasing his backbenchers and following the science. It’s why he ends up pleasing nobody.
I think the PM knows that tough restrictions are now needed, but he pretends that the restrictions might not be in place for long. And that it’s quite possible that everyone can be in a lower tier in two weeks’ time. But the reality is that tough restrictions will be needed until a vaccine is rolled out. And that may be months away.
So the PM will doubtless be back in a couple of weeks with another “plan”. But the PM doesn’t feel able to make that case today, or to provide the certainty and consistency we need. So instead we’ve had 48 hours of concessions, letters and promises to his MPs – not clear and reliable messaging to the public. It’s sadly symptomatic of the last eight months.
Mr Speaker, coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health, to our economy and to our way of life. We recognise the need for continued restrictions. It would not be in the national interest to vote against these restrictions today. So we will allow the regulations to pass. But this is another wasted opportunity.
The PM could have spent the last four weeks fixing track and trace, putting in place the support people need to isolate, building the economic package our great towns and cities need to protect jobs and people’s income, and restoring public confidence.
Instead, we see more short-termism. A PM stuck between his backbenchers and the national interest. And I fear that just won’t work.