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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 12:50 pm, 12th March 2020

As we face the coronavirus crisis, it is vital that we demonstrate to the people of our country that we are meeting it head-on and that we will defeat it—and we will. As I have said elsewhere, this is no time for partisan political knockabout or, for that matter, publicity stunts. We have lives to save, so we must all work together. We will work with the Government and parties across the House to protect our people and to contribute to the worldwide effort to overcome the outbreak of this virus.

We welcome the Government’s package of measures announced yesterday. We must ensure, though, that alongside the medical and scientific strategy to contain, mitigate and halt the spread of the virus, the economic strategy is equally comprehensive. We agree with the Government that the NHS must receive whatever resources it needs. I pay tribute to and thank our NHS staff, who, as always, are rising to this challenge with their usual professionalism and dedication. We acknowledge that they are doing so at a time when they are already under extreme pressures, but we offer them our thanks.

The other key service that we need to support in this emergency is social care. It is unclear from Government statements so far what additional support is being provided to social care. Social care is already in crisis in this country. Before this virus outbreak, 1.5 million people were not receiving the care they need. There are more than 120,000 staff vacancies, and many of the private providers have been on the financial edge for some time. The majority of those who receive social care are older, disabled and vulnerable people—the very people who are most at risk from coronavirus infection. We have an £8 billion funding gap in social care budgets as the result of 10 years of austerity. Providers and local authorities are already stretched to breaking point in many areas, so we need to know how much additional support is being provided specifically for social care and what contingency plans are in place if individual providers are unable to cope. Like our support with regard to NHS funding, the Government will have our support to bring forward the resources, whatever it takes.

A large section of our care workforce is now under threat from the Government’s recently announced immigration policy. Some Members may have seen the GMB union calculation that the Government’s immigration policy will cost the care sector up to 500,000 staff. Without foreign careworkers, our care system would collapse. The message to the Home Secretary is clear: do not put our social care system at risk. Pragmatism must override ideology and policy at this stage.

Social care in this country largely falls on the shoulders of family members, and in our culture it is still usually the older women in our families. The pension age for many of those women was increased without proper consultation or notification. They were effectively robbed of many years of their pension, and this Government—despite all the Prime Minister’s promises before the election —have refused to compensate them. I met the WASPI women last week, and it is no wonder they are still angry. We may well look at what support can be given to individual carers within families as they cope with this crisis.

If any good is to come out of this developing tragedy, it must be the lessons we learn from it. It is overwhelmingly clear now that no Government can inflict a decade of cuts and austerity on our public services, such as the NHS and care services, without impacting on their resilience in a time of crisis. Ten years of cuts and a failure to invest in services mean that we are extremely ill-prepared for dealing with this type of large-scale health risk to our community.

We know that the NHS is already under pressure—intense pressure—as a result of underfunding and understaffing. Some 17,000 beds have been cut. Bed occupancy levels were at 94% last week, and critical care bed occupancy was at 80%—those are the beds we rely upon in episodes like coronavirus. The NHS is short of 100,000 staff, including more than 40,000 nurses and thousands of doctors. We have to recognise that the NHS needs to be put on a longer-term stable footing, with secure financial backing for the long term. Just as we have over the coronavirus outbreak, we must listen to the clinicians and the experts when it comes to what is needed. It should not take a crisis to secure for the NHS the resources it needs.

I turn to support for individuals and businesses. We welcome many of the Government’s measures set out by the Chancellor yesterday. The Budget stated that statutory sick pay will be paid from the first day of sickness absence and that people will be compensated for self-isolation, but we need more clarity. The Government guidance appears to exclude workers on zero-hours contracts, part-time workers and people earning below the lower earnings limit of £118 per week, saying that they are ineligible for statutory sick pay and are advised to make a claim for universal credit. Can we be absolutely clear who will be covered by statutory sick pay and who will not?

Sick pay is currently set at the low rate of £94.25 a week—that is about £18 a day. Average pre-tax earnings are £511 per week in nominal terms. Without lifting statutory sick pay, the financially secure will err on the side of caution and self-isolate, and all but the most financially secure will be asked to take a significant pay cut in order to self-isolate. That leaves people inevitably choosing between health and hardship.

For those being directed by Government to universal credit, I ask: what, if anything, has been done to reduce the five-week delay in receiving universal credit and to ensure the staffing resources in the Department for Work and Pensions to cope with the volume of demand? The suggestion is that these low-paid workers apply for universal credit, which then becomes a loan. That will push many low-paid workers into debt, which will cause significant hardship for some.

The Chancellor announced yesterday a £500 million fund for councils to administer. Could the Secretary of State clarify how much that means for each local authority and how it will be distributed? Will hard-stretched local authorities receive support for delivering that scheme? Councils are also being asked to administer £2.2 billion of funding to support businesses in meeting their ongoing business costs. Could we be clear about what resourcing councils will be given as they are asked to take on these responsibilities, after 10 years—to be frank, as a result of the cuts that have taken place—of local authorities often being hollowed out of the staffing resources they need?