Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:48 pm on 22nd September 2020.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 12:48 pm, 22nd September 2020

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for his telephone call last night. The picture presented yesterday by the Government’s advisers was stark and cannot be ignored. Infections are rising, hospitalisations are rising and the trajectory is clear. We know from bitter experience what happens next, so it is right that the Prime Minister is announcing further measures today, and we support those measures, just as we supported lockdown in March and the more recent local lockdowns. Although we have fierce criticism of the way the Government are handling this pandemic, when restrictions are needed, the national interest lies in clear communications and cross-party support, and so we will—as we have done before—encourage people to follow the Government guidance and obey the rule of law.

Families across the country will be anxious today. Many are already living under local lockdowns; many more fear that, soon, they will be. They are worried about their jobs, their loved ones and whether they will be able to spend Christmas with their families. They will also be worried that the Government do not have a clear strategy. One day, people are encouraged to work in the office; in fact, more than encouraged—they were openly challenged by the Prime Minister for not doing so. Today, they are told the opposite.

This is a time of national crisis, and we need clear leadership, so it is right that the Prime Minister answers a number of serious questions about the next steps. First, a number of areas in England already have localised restrictions, including some that are very similar to those announced today. Pubs and restaurants in Bolton, for example, have been told to shut at 10 pm for about two weeks, and Leicester has been in localised restrictions for about three months, yet infections in those areas remain high. Can the Prime Minister be sure that the restrictions he is introducing today will be effective in suppressing the virus? If they do not work, when does he envisage further measures might be necessary?

I also want to ask about support for families and businesses. These restrictions will put further pressures on the hospitality sector, on high streets and town centres and on people’s jobs and businesses, so what emergency financial support will be made available to those who need it? There was nothing in the Prime Minister’s statement about that. There is a big gap here. Will the Prime Minister now accept that withdrawing the furlough scheme in one fell swoop would be a disaster, and actually at complete odds with the measures he just announced, which are possibly for up to six months? Will he take us up on our offer to work with him, and with trade unions and businesses, on a replacement scheme that protects jobs and businesses?

Given the rise in infections, these restrictions are necessary, but they were not inevitable. We warned the Prime Minister months ago that testing needed to be fixed by the autumn. The Academy of Medical Sciences told him the same in July, saying:

“Testing and tracing capacity will need to be significantly expanded to cope with increasing demands over the winter.”

However, the Government did not listen. They pretended there was not a problem. They did not act quickly enough, and now the testing system is not working, just when we need it.

We should also recognise that a second national lockdown is not inevitable. That would be a huge failure of government, not an act of God. There is still time to prevent it. That must be a national effort. Labour will do whatever is reasonable and necessary to support that, to save lives and to protect the NHS, but the Government must lead, and they must do so fast.