Coronavirus has discriminated. The poorest communities have been hardest hit, with the highest mortality rates. Between March and May this year, County Durham had the third highest mortality rate in the UK. The biggest economic impact of coronavirus will be felt in the poorest communities. In the north-east, according to the North East England chamber of commerce, manufacturing is down 54% and the service sector is down 63%. In my constituency, unemployment is now 12% above the national average, and we all know from talking to local businesses that this is going to get worse as furlough ends and companies lay off workers. I fear that, without direct Government action, the north-east of England will return to the bad old days of the 1980s, with unemployment deprivation on that scale.
There are two sectors that we need to target. The first immediate measure that needs to be taken is to support small and medium-sized enterprises—tourism businesses and others—whether through rate relief or direct support. Secondly, the Government need to bring forward those Government projects that are now ready to go. Chester-le-Street railway station could be one of those projects. Likewise, Government contracts, nationally and in the region, need to be looked at to see which firms can become involved. Departments also need to put business directly into the regions. BAE Systems in the north-east, for example, could benefit in that regard. We have a Government who are committed to levelling up, so I am disappointed that when they have the opportunity to put investment into the north-east, they do not do it. It was disappointing that the vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre went to Oxford. The second place on the shortlist was the north-east, but they chose Oxford above the north-east of England.
The longer-term strategic aim is to establish a Government taskforce for the north-east, with a Minister in charge of it—someone who will be an advocate for the region. We also need to ensure that the so-called shared prosperity fund, which will replace European investment in the north-east, is brought forward, because that involves £134 million for Teesside and County Durham. Housing projects need to be brought forward on a regional basis, and innovation and training are a must. We should also have a guaranteed job or training scheme for the under-25s. Without this direct action, I fear that the north-east will go back to those dark days of the 1980s, which was a hard time for our region. We cannot have a repeat of the lost generation that we had then, when we know what is coming.