Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:42 pm on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 1:42 pm, 1st December 2020

The motions before the House relate exclusively to England, but that does not mean that they do not have consequences across these islands, so it is important that the voice of the Scottish National party is heard in this debate, although in line with our long-standing practice on matters that are devolved, we will not take part in any Division this evening. I am sure that is of some assistance to the Government Whips Office.

Perhaps the first thing the Government need to consider is why they have got to such a stage. Scotland has passed similar but not identical regulations, with a far greater degree of cross-party and intra-party consensus than seems to have been managed here in Westminster. Perhaps that is because the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretaries and senior public health officials have always taken a commendably frank and honest approach with the people of Scotland about the challenges of the virus and the difficulty of the decisions that must be made.

In the summertime, the First Minister initiated a national dialogue with people across Scotland on what a road map out of the initial lockdown should and could look like. Instead of promising moonshots and world-beating systems, and that it would all be over by Christmas, the Scottish Government and the other devolved Governments have worked to take people with them, whether that is the public at large or their own Back Benchers; and we have always been clear that public health and saving lives must be the priority. Whatever the pain —and real pain is caused to the economy and livelihoods by such restrictions—that pain is as nothing to a life ended too soon, to a family or community bereaved by this dreadful disease. As always, the Scottish National party sends its deepest sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one as a result of the pandemic.

That, however, is not to minimise the impact and effects of the economic pain. I see it first hand in Glasgow North, which thrives on the hospitality, entertainment and events sector. I will be interested to find out what the consequences will be north of the border of the Government’s announcement today on support for pubs. My constituency is home to thousands of creatives, start-ups and entrepreneurs who have all been left behind, forgotten and excluded from the Chancellor’s support package. We hear the impact from the families who are genuinely terrified that the £20 universal credit uplift will not be extended beyond March and from those on legacy benefits who have yet to see a similar uplift. And we all feel the struggle of the frontline public sector workers busting a gut to keep the services we all depend on going in the most difficult of circumstances.

On support for all those groups and for those who need to isolate, which is absolutely critical to stopping the virus, the Government have been found wanting. The Prime Minister was chuntering to the Leader of the Opposition, saying, “How do we get people to self-isolate?” Well, as he said, start by paying a decent rate of statutory sick pay. Make it affordable for people to stay at home and stay safe. Perhaps if the Government had made more effort to support those people—to support the excluded, to support families who are struggling—they would not be feeling the heat they are now from their own Back Benchers.

We just need to compare that with what we have heard in the last few days in Scotland: a £500 bonus for all NHS and social care staff. For 10 weeks, we all clapped for carers, but that was never going to be enough. This is a gesture of thanks for extraordinary service, and I really hope the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will have the decency not to level tax on this well-deserved reward. For the families who need it most, there will be a £100 one-off payment before Christmas to households with children in receipt of free school meals and a commitment that all primary children will receive free meals—breakfast and lunch—at school all year round if the SNP is re-elected next year. That is the difference that devolution makes.

For NHS workers and families in receipt of these payments, that is not a disaster; that is a Scottish Government working for and delivering for their best interests and the interests of our society as a whole. If it means that we are using our share of money that the UK Treasury has borrowed on Scotland’s behalf, well, that is the point of devolution. [Interruption.] If the Tories do not like it—I hear some chuntering—the solution is very simple. Independence for Scotland would have meant that we could have raised our own finance on our own terms and spent it on our priorities in our own time. We certainly would not have had to wait for the south-east of England to be placed into lockdown before the furlough scheme was extended across the whole of the UK.

If the Prime Minister is feeling pressure from his own side today, he only has himself to blame. Real leadership is about being able to make the hard choices and being honest with people when mistakes are made, especially in a time of crisis. People do not want bluster and false hope; they want honesty, determination and empathy. The devolved Governments have always sought a four nations approach wherever possible. We have seen that agreement can be reached in the provisions being made for those who need to travel to see loved ones over Christmas. While that period of easing will be welcomed by many, all of us will have an extra responsibility to be extra vigilant to minimise risk, practise social distancing and good hand hygiene, wear face coverings and take all the other steps we have become familiar with.

That familiarity, however, cannot become complacency. The threat of the virus to overwhelm our health service and to undermine the economy, and to individual lives across the country, has not gone away. We welcome the light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines come online, but that light must be approached slowly and carefully. That is why Scotland will continue with its tier system and the difficult decisions we need until the virus is beaten. The other devolved nations are making similar decisions and Members representing England in this place have a responsibility to do likewise.