Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:16 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 1:16 pm, 1st December 2020

I do agree, and their cry still has not been heard. I accept that in putting together a support package in a hurry back in March, there may have been reasons why certain groups were overlooked, but this is eight months on. It has been pointed out over and over again, and here we go into a tiered system and there is still that gap in the system, and it is being very strongly felt out there.

The third point about the economic package is this: the Government must remove the uncertainty about furlough and rule out changing the scheme again in January. That is crucial, because businesses are beginning to make decisions about what they do in January. The Chancellor made this mistake before. By the time the furlough was extended, many businesses had laid people off because it came too late. We know what happens in that circumstance. The uncertainty has already caused real economic damage and we cannot afford the same mistake again. So, taken together, the business and economic support just does not stack up.

I want to make a wider point about the economic damage that this pandemic and the Government have done to our economy. Last week’s autumn statement laid bare the huge and worsening economic cost of the crisis. I know there are those who say, “That is the reason to end restrictions”, but the reality is that we cannot protect the economy if we lose control of the virus—that just leads to more uncertainty, more restrictions and more long-term damage to the economy. The failure to get control of the virus or take a long-term approach to shielding our economy has left the UK with the worst economic recession of the G7 and the highest death toll in Europe.

The fifth reason for scepticism about the Government’s approach is this: managing and priorities. The past 48 hours have been a summary of the mistakes the Government have made in this crisis. The Prime Minister is fatally split between appeasing his Back Benchers and following the science, and he is ending up pleasing nobody. I think the Prime Minister knows that tough restrictions are now needed, but he pretends that the restrictions might not be in place for very long. He pretends that it is quite possible that everybody will be in a lower tier in two weeks’ time. The reality is that tough restrictions will be needed until the vaccine is rolled out, and that may be months away. The Prime Minister will doubtless be back in a few weeks with another plan, but he does not make that case today or provide the certainty or the consistency that we need. So in the past 48 hours we have had concessions, letters and promises to his MPs, not clear and reliable messaging to the public, and that is symptomatic of the problem.

Coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health, our economy and our way of life. We recognise the need for continued restrictions, but it is not in the national interest to vote these restrictions down today and we will allow them to pass. But it is another wasted—