I want to start with a quote from the incomparable C. S. Lewis, who said:
“The duty of planning tomorrow’s work is today’s duty”.
That is what I want to talk about—our duty to get several steps ahead of this virus so that we are on the front foot in the future. There is no doubt that this pandemic has tested every aspect of government. Right around the world, leaders have had to react fast to the extreme challenges that have faced them.
I know how annoying it is when former Cabinet Ministers poke at Front-Bench colleagues, so I make my remarks today with full appreciation of how hard this is; it is much easier to give advice than to actually make it happen. I simply want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give the House an update on whether the Government are now fighting fit, whether we are now outpacing the virus, and whether we can now get several steps ahead and think about the future beyond the pandemic.
First, with the fantastic news of the possibility of a vaccine, can my hon. Friend tell us how the Government have combined the efforts of public and private sectors, to make sure that every aspect of the vaccine programme is scalable from day one across the UK? Secondly, the evidence of the testing programme in Liverpool shows yet again how fantastic our armed forces are at dealing with complex logistics, so can my hon. Friend confirm that their expertise will be used in every part of the country? Thirdly, can my hon. Friend confirm that all preparations are in place to distribute the first wave of vaccines, to determine precisely who will receive them and in what order of priority?
All those steps are vital in giving us an advantage on the path to a post-covid future. Only then can we really set our sights on our ambition for economic success as an independent, sovereign United Kingdom. With that in mind, first, can my hon. Friend provide reassurance that the Government are looking ahead at the potential for the UK to lead the world in tackling global climate change? That is not only the right thing to do but, for this generation, it provides massive potential for new jobs and growth, and will help us to build our global free-trade relationships as we seek to lead the world in decarbonisation.
Secondly, can my hon. Friend tell me how the Government are using the experience of lockdown to better understand how embracing flexible work as standard in all employment could enable the workforce of the future to enjoy a far better work-life balance and improve the quality of life for many people? Thirdly, can she confirm that the Government are looking at what more can be done for small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the lifeblood of our economy and the future job builders? Many business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed by this unforgiving pandemic, and they will struggle to get back on their feet. We need a strategy to give entrepreneurs help and support, as well as confidence, to restart.
The pandemic has forced us to focus anew on those in society who need our help, including people who have suffered greatly. First, how do we ensure that never again will schoolchildren have to face teacher-assessed grades, with all the potential professional implications that that has for their lives? How will we make sure that younger children catch up so that we do not have a cohort who always struggle with literacy and numeracy? Secondly, how do the Government plan to help school leavers and university students who feel hopeless about their future job prospects? The Chancellor’s kickstart scheme is a great short-term fix, but it does not offer training or a long-term future path that many young people crave. Thirdly, what more can Government do for the most vulnerable in our society who have suffered serious harm and loneliness this year, including those who suffer from things such as Alzheimer’s or those with new babies who have been left isolated, with potential long-term harm for their families?
I believe that we have a bright future post the pandemic, but we must use the time that we have now to get ahead with our planning for the future. I began with a quote from C. S. Lewis, and I will close with another one:
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Let us make that true.