Covid-19 Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 23rd June 2020.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 12:50 pm, 23rd June 2020

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. I join him in sending our condolences to the families and friends of those who died or were injured in Reading on Saturday. This was a truly appalling attack, and I extend our thanks to the police officers and members of the public who showed incredible bravery in response. I spoke to my hon. Friend Matt Rodda at the weekend and I am sure that I speak for the whole House in saying to the people of Reading that we stand with them at this incredibly difficult time.

When I was elected leader of the Labour party, I said that I would offer

“constructive opposition, with the courage to support the Government”—[Official Report, 22 April 2020;
Vol. 675, c. 41.]

where they are doing the right thing. We will, of course, scrutinise the details of the announcement and study the guidance, and there are obviously a number of questions that need to be answered, but overall I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. I believe that the Government are trying to do the right thing, and in that we will support them.

There are no easy decisions to be made here. Any unlocking carries risks. It has to be phased, managed and carefully planned; it needs to be based on scientific evidence, properly communicated and accompanied by robust track and trace systems; and there must be support for local councils and communities to respond quickly and decisively if there are any fresh outbreaks. But there are risks of inaction as well—of keeping businesses and schools closed, of keeping our economy closed, and of keeping families apart. We all need to recognise that today.

I have a number of questions about the basis for these decisions, which I hope the Prime Minister will address in a constructive way. First, on the scientific evidence, I listened carefully to what he said about the 2-metre rule and the 1-metre rule. Can he assure the House that the package of measures is agreed by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser? What assessment has been made of the overall impact on transmission of the virus and on the R rate, both nationally and regionally?

On preventing a second spike and reintroducing measures as needed, the Prime Minister knows that local authorities will have to be central to that, but they need the resources and the powers. What additional support is he providing to councils? What new powers for swift local lockdown will be needed should there be a spike in infections?

On protection of those working, particularly on the frontline, we all want people to go back to work, but it has to be safe and standards have to be enforced. What enforceable measures will the Prime Minister put in place to give confidence to those who are returning to work?

On support for businesses, these changes are necessary, but they will be complex. Many businesses have already spent thousands of pounds preparing to operate at 2 metres. These changes will particularly be felt by small businesses and those on the high street, so what support can be given to them to address that?

On schools, I do think that it is safe for some children to return. I completely support that; the question is how quickly we can get all children back to school safely, the sooner the better. It was the Education Secretary who told the House on 9 June that it would not be possible to bring all children back to school before the summer. One of the reasons we support today’s announcement is that it will make it more possible, and easier, to get children back to school more quickly. We will support that, and my offer to work with the Prime Minister on that stands.

Finally, on test, track and trace, the Prime Minister will know that we have very serious concerns about the gaps in the current system, including the absence of an app. Getting this right is essential to unlocking in a safe manner, and it is important that the Prime Minister clarifies when the full track, trace and isolate system will be in place.

Today is an important step in the fight against this virus. We will scrutinise the detail, and we do want more clarity, but we welcome the thrust of the statement.