Owen Thompson – 2020 Speech on Covid-19

Below is the text of the speech made by Owen Thompson, the SNP MP for Midlothian, in the House of Commons on 12 May 2020.

I begin with an observation: there had been a consistent approach across the four nations, but, at a time when clarity is critical, we find ourselves in a situation where three of the four nations of the UK are still trying to be clear, consistent and cautious in their approach to tackling and beating the coronavirus pandemic; it is a great pity that the Prime Minister muddied the waters so badly over the weekend. While it is absolutely the Prime Minister’s right to change from a very clear “Stay at home” message to the imprecise “Stay alert” message for England, it is irresponsible to spread the change in the media as if it applied collectively across the entire UK without even consulting the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Governments. This is a public health matter that is rightly being considered by the devolved Administrations on the basis of scientific evidence. It seems that the UK Government’s idea of a four nations approach is less about working respectfully together and more about, “Do as we say.”

The advice in Scotland remains clear. For the avoidance of any doubt, I will reiterate it here: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. While the pandemic has undoubtedly brought challenges, it has also brought ​out the best in our communities. From fundraising to helping neighbours to the willingness of our communities to help, it has been incredible, nowhere more so than in my own Midlothian constituency, with resilience groups in Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, Dalkeith and Woodburn, Danderhall, Eskbank and Newbattle, Gorebridge, Howgate, Loanhead, Newtongrange, Penicuik, Roslin and Bilston, Rosewell and the Tynewater area. I make particular mention of the Mayfield and Easthouses community resilience team, which has so far delivered more than 3,550 hot meals to elderly and vulnerable members of our community. There will undoubtedly be other amazing examples of help and support, and Midlothian Council’s #KindnessMidlothian campaign is certainly well-named to reflect that.

I also for the most part welcome the Treasury’s response to this pandemic, although there are many areas that still need to be addressed. I welcome the business support that has been put in place by the Chancellor and his efforts so far to resolve problems that have emerged with the schemes, but a lot more urgently needs to be done to help those still left behind. I have many constituents who have yet to receive any support and who had a viable business but cannot get a loan to see them through. The business interruption loan scheme is too cumbersome, and too many banks are still failing to lend. While the bounce-back scheme tackles some of those issues for smaller businesses, the reports that I have heard suggest that it remains far from a streamlined process, and there are only five accredited lenders compared with 50 for the interruption loan scheme. There is also still the issue of support for the self-employed, particularly those who left a good job to run their own business.

I welcome the extension of the furlough scheme announced by the Chancellor earlier today and the suggested flexibility. I am keen to see the detail of that much more clearly. As we move forward, we need to ensure that protection remains in place for those who need it. At the end of the day, I argue that the best and most flexible support that could be put in place would be for the Government to introduce a universal basic income and genuinely ensure that nobody is missed through these tough times.

Protecting people’s lives while they are protecting their livelihoods is a complex matter. One size does not fit all and a degree of flexibility to suit differing circumstances is needed from Government—flexible support and flexibility over strategy in the different parts of these isles. I welcome the more cautious approach from the Scottish Government in easing lockdown. I advise the UK Government to take a similar approach. I appreciate that they would choose not to, but they must respect the devolved settlement and not undermine the clarity of message we have here in Scotland.