The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 21 February 2022.
May I start by sending my condolences to the family of Christopher Stalford? Christopher was a dedicated servant of the people of South Belfast and his loss will be deeply felt.
I also send our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen; as the Prime Minister said, the whole House wishes her a speedy recovery.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of his statement and for the briefing earlier this afternoon.
Huge efforts have been made over the past two years and we would not be where we are today without the heroism of our NHS and key workers, without those who pioneered and rolled out the vaccines and without the sacrifices that people made every day to follow the rules and protect our public health. We must honour the collective sacrifices of the British people and do everything possible to prevent a return to the loss and lockdowns that we have seen over the past two years.
The Prime Minister promised to present a plan for living with covid, but all we have today is yet more chaos and disarray: not enough to prepare us for the new variants that may yet develop and an approach that seems to think that living with covid means simply ignoring it. This morning, he could not even persuade his own Health Secretary to agree to the plan, so what confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?
Let me be clear: the Labour party does not want to see restrictions in place for a moment longer than necessary—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, we have to take the public with us, and that requires clarity—[Interruption.]
Order. I call on Members to show some respect. Just as I expect the Prime Minister to be heard in silence, so, too, should the Leader of the Opposition. If you do not wish to be in here, there is plenty of room outside this Chamber. I suggest that you start using it, and I will be helping you on your way. Let us have silence.
We have to take the public with us, and that requires clarity about why decisions are being made. Will the Prime Minister publish the scientific evidence behind his decision to remove the legal requirement to self-isolate, including the impact on the clinically extremely vulnerable for whom lockdown has never ended?
Having come this far, I know that the British people will continue to act responsibly and that they will do the right thing: testing and then isolating if positive. What I cannot understand is why the Prime Minister is taking away the tools that will help them to do that. Free tests cannot continue forever, but if you are 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go, you do not sub off one of your best defenders.
The Prime Minister is also removing self-isolation support payments, which allow many people to isolate, and weakening sick pay. These are decisions that will hit the lowest paid and the most insecure workers the hardest, including care workers, who got us through the toughest parts of the pandemic. It is all very well advising workers to self-isolate, but that will not work unless all workers have the security of knowing that they can afford to do so.
The Prime Minister mentioned surveillance and the ONS infection survey. This is crucial to ensuring that we can ramp up testing and vaccination if the virus returns, so can the Prime Minister confirm that he has put the funding in place to ensure that the ONS infection survey will not see reduced capacity and that it will be able to track the virus with the same degree of detail as it can today? We cannot turn off Britain’s radar before the war is won. “Ignorance is bliss” is not a responsible approach to a deadly virus. It actually risks undoing all the hard-won progress that the British people have achieved over the last two years.
The Labour party has published a comprehensive plan for living well with covid. Our plan would see us learn the lessons of the past two years and be prepared for new variants. The Prime Minister’s approach will leave us vulnerable. Where is the plan to secure the UK’s supply of testing? Why are schools still not properly ventilated? There is no doubt that, as a nation, we need to move on from covid. People need to know that their liberties are returning and returning for good, but this is a half-baked announcement from a Government paralysed by chaos and incompetence. It is not a plan to live well with covid.