The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest crisis that most of us have ever lived through, and the values of solidarity, co-operation and support for public services are more important than ever at this critical time. In his March Budget speech, the Chancellor said that we enter this crisis from the position of economic strength. But for millions of people, that could not have been further from the truth, nor was it the case for our public services.
A decade of austerity and a 40-year period dominated by marketisation, deregulation and privatisation left us less than prepared to deal with this crisis. The crisis has brought the failings of all that into sharp focus: weak public services, a broken social care system, a woeful lack of workers’ rights, a hollowed-out social security system, and a housing market that treats housing as an asset rather than a human right. The priority of the Government must, of course, be saving lives, but we must also do all we can to stop this public health crisis from becoming a social and economic crisis.
The Chancellor, since his Budget, has provided additional support. That is welcome, but it falls far short of what is needed. It is rightly said that this virus does not discriminate, but our society and economy do: that is clear from how many people are suffering in this crisis. Families in my constituency were struggling to get by before this pandemic. Many are now in crisis. The bills have not stopped, even if their ability to pay them has. Many were on poverty pay before the crisis. Now some are receiving just 80% of the minimum wage on furlough. The Government must act immediately so that no one is left on less than the minimum wage during this crisis.
We urgently need to see action over the shockingly low level of sick pay. It should be increased to real living wage levels, and we must ensure that millions of low-paid—mainly women—workers can access it too. We also still need to see much more support for renters, starting with rent suspensions, as well as social security set at levels that families can live on, not levels designed to punish them.
The Chancellor recently said that the financial support for those affected by the coronavirus crisis will need to be paid back at some point. When we draw up the list of who should pay, at the top must be the super-rich, who have profited from a decade of tax giveaways from the Conservative party. There must be no question of us repeating the injustice of the past decade while working-class people have paid with their wages frozen and their services cut. This crisis has underlined who we really rely on: workers deemed unskilled or undeserving of proper pay rises just a few weeks ago. When this is over, we have to build a country that treats those workers and working-class families across the country with the respect that they deserve, and which they have not been shown for far too long.