Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:02 pm, 22nd October 2020

Sometimes it feels like we are living in a parallel dimension. When we think of our lives a year ago, it feels like another galaxy far, far away. For many of my constituents —particularly those isolating on their own—it is the impression of being stuck in a parallel life, subject to confusing and inconsistent communications, battling alone through a long tunnel with no light at the end that is so dispiriting, undermining mental wellbeing and the success of public health measures. That is why we need a circuit breaker now and a road map to control the virus.

I imagine another parallel universe—one where the Government got a grip on the virus back in March and did not let go, and where the Secretary of State did not decide to stop tracking community infections in March but instead took up the offer of local environmental health officers and gave local authority public health teams, such as the one in Newcastle led by the excellent Eugene Milne, the responsibility and resources to set up local community tracking and tracing. As Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, said in April,

“You need people on old-fashioned things like telephones or going door to door and they need to be local teams because they need to understand the local communities.”

The fact is that without the Government’s Health and Social Care Act 2012, which led to the decimation of public health disease control and both its centralisation and fragmentation; without 10 years of austerity, which slashed the capacity of the state and our public services and drove up inequality, on which the virus feeds; without a Secretary of State who put his faith in technology, when, as an engineer, I know that it is only ever people who are the solution; without a Prime Minister who is scared of difficult decisions and unable to grasp detail; and without a Government steeped in the ideology of the free market knows best, we could be in that world.

Instead, we find today that only 60% of Test and Trace contacts are reached by the £10 billion Serco test and trace. We should be in a position where we know where the disease is, so that while coronavirus remains a deadly threat, we feel confident that we know where it is and how to avoid it. In Newcastle, we are battling to stay in tier 2, and I urge everyone to follow the coronavirus measures—the security measures—but I also say that without a proper track and trace, we are working blind, and the failure to control the disease is a failure of the Government and not my constituents.

Finally, I want to talk about jobs and the re-emergence of mass unemployment on Tyneside, which would be another failure of this Government. Two weeks ago, I held a business roundtable in Newcastle and I was struck by how hard so many businesses are working to do the right thing, investing thousands and in covid security, keeping their customers safe, keeping their employees safe and protecting jobs. I really want to urge the Government to work with local authorities, to work with Newcastle City Council, to communicate effectively to businesses who feel betrayed and to ensure that the support is there for businesses as well as a plan that they can follow, but also to make sure that no one is excluded. We have seen mass unemployment in Newcastle under a previous Conservative Government. If our viable sectors—and our sectors are viable—and our viable jobs are destroyed during this pandemic, it will be another failure of a Conservative Government.