Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:53 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 8:53 pm, 14th December 2020

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. Taken together, the contributions have served as an important reminder of just how far the frontline of the fight against this pandemic stretches. I would highlight in particular the passionate speech of my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, who highlighted the plight of small businesses across her constituency, especially in the hospitality sector, and my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy, who spoke about the urgent issue of vaccine distribution to nations in the global south.

We owe our deepest gratitude to all those who spend their days and nights caring for others, working to keep our local economies functioning, our communities safe and our public services working, including our NHS and care workers, who continue to work long, gruelling hours, struggling for months without adequate PPE in a heroic response to the virus. Time and time again, our teachers, support staff and childcare workers create safe and supportive environments for children to thrive, even under such huge pressures. Other key workers, including many on short-term or zero-hours contracts, work to keep the country running. Testing site workers and contact tracers, often under-trained and ill-equipped, have done a huge amount of work, as have so many others across the country during this difficult time.

I know that every Member across the House wants to support and recognise all those working on the frontline of coronavirus. It is essential that their commitment and sacrifice is met with a fair, effective and far more joined-up approach than what the Government are currently delivering. That is the minimum they deserve.

Labour pays tribute to the work carried out by doctors and scientists across the world to develop vaccines against covid-19. Every Member across the House will have shared in the jubilation as Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer covid-19 jab following its clinical approval last week.

In the meantime, as the vaccination programme is rolled out, there is still a huge task to reduce transmission. Labour has warned for months of the need for an effective test, track and trace system, but unfortunately the Government failed to use the window provided by the second national lockdown to fix the Serco test and trace system, and it remains an area where they are failing.

Labour is clear that our local mayors and council leaders should be in the driving seat to deliver an effective localised test, track and trace system. Our local councils have been a lifeline for so many during this difficult time, and are crucial not only in facing the virus down, but in rebuilding and recovering from the pandemic, yet too often some parts of the UK are left behind by the Government. On too many occasions, local leaders have not been given a seat at the table while the national Serco test and trace system flounders. Local responses will very according to the prevalence and transmission rate of the virus, but local leaders must know clearly what is expected of them and must be provided with the funding to deliver for the communities that they have been elected to serve.

The combination of Serco test and trace and the three-tier system failed to limit the spread of disease in September and October, and we ended up in a second national lockdown. Nobody wants a repeat of that. That is why we are calling on the Government to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, that systems are reformed and strengthened and that no area is left behind.

This afternoon, we learned that London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be placed into tier 3 on Wednesday. That is devastating news for many businesses, driven by alarming rates of disease transmission. The measures are sadly necessary, but they will succeed only if the Government work constructively with local leaders and put in place the right measures to support businesses and those who need to self-isolate.

We have seen the Government’s response too often being driven by who they know, not who is best placed to deliver. Multimillion-pound contracts have been handed to a small number of large firms, many of which are not integrated into our local communities and are not beholden to the same standards of scrutiny as Government Departments or local authorities. Not only that, but outsourced contracts and the cronyism too often associated with them have marred the Government’s response. That must be addressed.

Today, we learned of yet another example: Fleetwood Strategy, a brand-new company whose founder worked on the Tories’ election campaign, which was handed a £124,000 contract with no competition. We need much more transparency and more proof that experienced and qualified British businesses are being openly engaged. That is absolutely crucial for a joined-up and well-co-ordinated covid-19 response and for restoring the trust that is sorely lacking.

The Government must also see our schools, teachers and support staff as an indispensable part of our communities. Schools must be properly supported, with the right measures in place, including mass testing, to ensure that any spread of infection is swiftly contained. Local leaders in the north looked on in astonishment last week when councils in London and Essex were offered the mass testing for schools that they had been denied. The same councils in London and Essex were in turn bewildered at the lack of support provided for them to deliver the tests that they had been allocated. There are still schools struggling to access laptops for children who do not have them, so that they can learn from home when they need to self-isolate, at the same time as many children are being sent home due to infections in school or staff shortages. The Children’s Commissioner, Ofsted and others have been clear that covid-19 has widened the disadvantage gap between children. The failure to ensure that every child has the basic equipment they need to be able to continue their education remotely when needed is a source of huge anger and frustration in many communities, and that, combined with the failure to roll out the catch-up tutoring programme in any meaningful way, means that the Government are allowing coronavirus to compound educational disadvantage.

Tackling covid-19 is a huge global challenge. Appallingly, the UK has the worst death rate in Europe and the deepest recession of any G7 country as a consequence, so the Government must now learn the lessons from other countries. The Government’s response must be far more joined up. Countries that have managed the most effective infection control introduced locally led contact tracing, deeply embedded in communities. Ensuring that people who need to self-isolate do so means putting in place income support so that no one has to choose between doing the right thing for public health and putting food on the table However, we are still in a position where local authorities across England feel disconnected from central Government and where the national contact tracing system is still not anywhere near locally integrated enough to curb the spread of infection effectively.

All of us want the response to covid to be successful and all of us are unequivocally delighted at the news of our scientists’ success in developing effective vaccines, but we still face very grave challenges. That is why Labour has proposed overhauling the failing support for self-isolation. The Government’s own chief scientific adviser has said that testing

“only matters if people isolate as well”.

The Government must expand eligibility for the £500 test and trace support payment to users of the NHS covid-19 app and reduce the isolation period by using rapid testing. They must urgently conduct and publish an assessment of the financial barriers to self-isolation, including the level of statutory sick pay. They must end the top-down centralised model of test, trace and isolate once and for all, putting local teams in charge, and they must ensure routine testing for all high-risk workplaces and high-transmission areas. For our national response to work, a more connected and community-based response is crucial. I urge the Government to listen today and meet that challenge head-on.

We can all look forward to the vaccination roll-out. It is vital that everyone who is offered a vaccine takes it and protects themself and those closest to them, but we also know that the roll-out of the approved vaccines will take months, and that still, every single day, hundreds of people across the UK are dying from covid, and many more are suffering from its longer-term effects. We cannot and must not continue on the same path, with the Government clinging to outsourced contracts that have failed time and again to deliver. The Government must fix Track and Trace, support people to do the right thing, help vital sectors of our economy such as hospitality and the performing arts to survive beyond the pandemic, and work with our councils and communities to break the stranglehold of this virus and enable the recovery to begin.