First, I send my deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones in this global pandemic, and to all who are worried about loved ones. I thank the Clerks, the cleaners, the police and all the essential staff who are here keeping Parliament running, but I echo the sentiments of the Members from across the House who have said that we really must investigate how we can work remotely in this time of crisis. I am not trying to make any cheap political points, because this is not the time to do that, but it is the right time to talk about politics, because we are closing Parliament for Easter. Politics is about resources. It is about spending money. It is about what and whom we value and what our values are.
Those values have never been more vital than in the midst of a crisis such as this. It should not have taken a crisis to prove that the country’s safety net keeps us all safe, but it has. It should not have taken a pandemic for cleaners, delivery workers, waste disposal workers, transport workers, care workers and domestic violence workers—to name but a few—to be recognised as key workers, but it has.
It is at moments such as this that we are forced to reflect on what sort of country we are creating, what sort of country we want to be and where our priorities lie. We have the second biggest economy in Europe, but one of the lowest rates of sick pay. The Government have suspended mortgage payments, but not rents; they have given £350 billion in grants and loans to businesses, but little for the 5 million self-employed or the 1 million on zero-hours contracts and in the gig economy. We hear that that might happen on Thursday, but we will not be here to question the Government.
As for the millionaires and billionaires who are dismissing staff or telling them to go and work in Tesco—Wetherspoons and Branson—I will not even waste my breath on them, because the first priority must be to protect the most vulnerable. Now more than ever, in the truest sense of the word, we are all in this together, and nobody should be left out in the cold.
Let us imagine key workers cleaning away the deadly virus or care workers looking after the elderly. They would all be judged as unskilled under a points classification system. The postal workers who cancelled the strike action to deliver prescriptions, the supermarket workers and all those key workers looking after the most vulnerable—they all answered the call, and while there will be no box on a form that says, “I served my country”, no one should ever doubt again that they did. Every day they go out and work on the frontline, but if they fall ill, they might get £94.50 in sick pay.
It goes without saying—it has been said many times—that sick pay needs to be increased if we are to value our key workers. They say that, in times of crisis, when current policies are not working, those in power need to use whatever ideas are lying around. It is lucky that the Labour party, under my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, put together such a comprehensive set of ideas and recorded them in two Labour manifestos. We are now treating people the way we should have been treating people all along. It should be the norm.
Sometimes, the discussions in Parliament sound sensible, but they do not reflect what is happening in constituencies such as mine in Brent. I have lots of homes in multiple occupation in Brent—loads of people with no recourse to public funds. They stay in one house, often a house with strangers, but that never normally matters, because they often work shifts, so they do not see each other. Being forced into lockdown is causing multiple problems in Brent, and I wonder whether that has contributed to my constituency’s having such a high infection rate and such a high death rate. I thank Brent Council for considering all that and for the work it is doing. I thank the businesses that are offering accommodation and extra help to the most vulnerable in my constituency.
To all the domestic abuse survivors, I would like to say, “Please do not suffer in silence.” We know that domestic abuse increases during the holiday season, and this lockdown is much worse. I worry about the rise in domestic and child abuse. If the Government’s “whatever it takes” is to mean anything, there will be a safe place for people to go. To all those who are suffering, I say, “Please make that call.”
Now I would like to talk about the superheroes—the doctors and nurses. They might not take home £2,500 a month, but they risk their lives every day. The nurses now being asked to work did not have nursing bursaries when they started, but now they have been called in early—and they have come willingly. The Government now need to offer them a £15,000 grant to compensate, now that nursing bursaries have been reinstated. At the end of the day, doctors and nurses are becoming ill. Some, sadly, are dying. One nurse who we read about this week committed suicide because of the number of people who died on her ward. We need to ensure that there are tests, tests, tests, and that there is personal protective equipment for the doctors and nurses. There is no excuse. There is no value in going on TV and praising nurses and doctors, calling them “angels”, and then neglecting them when they are on the frontline.
It needs to be said that austerity has made the situation much worse than it needed to be. If this is not a time to prioritise key workers and increase pay, when is? We in this House can say thank you—we have all said that, and will continue to—but that will not put food on the table. It will not put clothes on people’s backs or pay for a much-needed holiday when we get through this—and we will get through this. But the Government can make the difference, and this is what it takes: to improve the wages and terms and conditions of our key workers.
I want to thank all the people who are helping to build and rebuild communities and helping the most vulnerable, as well as everyone who is staying at home to keep others safe. I say to all who are panic-buying that I understand the need to feel in control, especially at a time when there is so much conflicting information. But most will have what they need now, for several months probably, and our key workers do not. Please leave some toilet paper for others. At moments such as this, each individual must take responsibility for what they do. They must be reminded that their actions impact on not only themselves but others. Everyone must do what they can. Remember that, although we cannot control the situation around us, we can control our actions.
I say to the Government that, as we go forward into this crisis, for the sake of the nurses, doctors and all our key workers, please get your priorities right. So far 422 people have died. Hospitals are struggling to keep on top of the virus. Each number represents a loved one—a mother, father, son, daughter, uncle, auntie or friend. Each number represents a hole in people’s lives: a truncated grievance process and a broken heart that will never fully heal.
I conclude with this. It will take a long time for us to come to terms with this deadly virus and pandemic and understand what we have faced and are going through, but we must emerge from this better. We must pause to think that many of these workers are migrants. In a year’s time, people who want to come and do key jobs in our country’s vital sector are going to be told that they have not gained enough points. It is a shame that people do not get any points for mere humanity.
I say to the Government: as you work to protect the economy, remember who the economy is ultimately for. Remember who creates the wealth and who keeps us safe. Remember the people who put their lives on the line. Remember who tended the sick and the appeals for compassion, consideration, solidarity and responsibility. Those values do not work just in a pandemic: they are the cornerstone of a decent society and a vibrant nation.