Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:53 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education) 6:53 pm, 14th December 2020

I want to start by giving my thanks to all those people working in the NHS and all the key workers for the incredible job they have done throughout the pandemic.

The Government are facing quite a dangerous situation where many see their tier system as neither effective nor fair. Conspiracy groups are popping up across the country, spreading lies and misinformation through social media. In fact, as quickly as social media giants stop them, they seem to find a new way to spread their misinformation. In my previous speech, I called for transparency on how decisions are made and said that transparency is the only way to defeat conspiracy theories, but the Government are still failing to provide it. I am going to quote from an answer to a written question I asked about how tiers are decided. I asked the Secretary of State for Health when he planned to publish the scientific evidence used to determine which areas are under tier 3 covid restrictions. The response I had was that decisions on tiers are based on

“the case detection rate…in particular, among those over 60 years old;
how quickly case rates are rising or falling;
positivity in the general population;
pressure on the National Health Service”,

and so on. The important line that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention, which is feeding some of the disquiet that I sense in my constituency, is:

“As decisions are informed by a range of factors, it is possible for variation between individual factors when comparing areas.”

That fuels the sense that somehow the rules that many of us are experiencing up in the north are different from what people are experiencing down in the south. Why is there a possible variation between individual factors? Surely the Government have criteria that apply to everybody, regardless of their postcode or the place they live. That is how we have fairness, transparency and trust in Government, which is currently lacking.

People in Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle have been working hard to get the virus rate down. The East Riding seven-day rate is now 125, and Hull’s is 195. That is 75% lower than the peak on 16 November, and that dramatic drop is because of the hard work of people from across the constituency, despite the harm that having to follow all these rules is causing the local economy.

We are a face-to-face economy. When looking at the reasons why we had that sudden, huge growth, we have to look at the jobs in which people are employed. Many people’s jobs in Hull require them to go to work. They are not jobs that can be done remotely or at home. There is more need for self-isolation—again, I made that point to the Minister in my previous speech. If we want people to do the right thing, they should not suffer financial consequences for doing it. We need to look at the isolation payments of £500 that are reaching so few people.

I really hope that our declining rate is looked upon favourably when a decision is made about which tier to move us into. A 75% drop in a few weeks shows how determined we are to move out of tier 3 and into tier 2, but we need clarity. What are the criteria? What is the goal? Tell us what we need to do to move out of tier 3, and we can focus on making sure we do it.

The Government cannot leave us in tier 3 over the Christmas period without extra support. It has been an uphill battle to get any support for our area. I have said to the Minister many times before that we will not be the forgotten city, which is how many people in my constituency feel right now. Although furlough is protecting jobs, which is good news, it is not protecting businesses. Businesses tell me that furlough is going to continue after their business has failed. If the businesses have gone, what is the point in continuing the furlough until March?

Pub landlords are furious, and they have every right to be. There are 334 pubs in Hull, and landlords are seeing their life’s work destroyed and their industry go under. Many pubs will not open, but they are a vital part of our communities. Landlords spent months adapting to the Government guidance, ensuring they are covid-safe, closing at 10 pm and spending an awful lot of money, and their reward has been inadequate financial support. They see people crammed down Oxford Street in London, pushing past each other and not wearing masks, and all the time they are told, “You are not safe enough to open.” They are angry. As my hon. Friend Dr Allin-Khan mentioned, they see the Government wasting money on PPE contracts, and they are told that there is nothing extra to give them. That fuels the sense of injustice and unfairness.

The £20 a head business support grant is a one-off payment, and no account has been taken of the amount of time that restrictions may be in place in an area. That is putting an indescribable amount of pressure on business owners, who have no idea when they will be allowed to open. That is creating a gulf in support across the city. How is it right that businesses in tier 1 areas have received the same package of support for a 28-day national lockdown as businesses in tier 3? We have already spent weeks under the tightest restrictions, and there is a feeling of unfairness. Surely we need to look again at the discretionary support that is being provided for businesses in tier 3.

This pandemic is not an equaliser. We did not start from the same position, and it has not impacted everybody equally. We started from a weaker position because we had a decade of cuts and underfunding. Hull is one of the most deprived areas in the country. Our claimant count is now over 11%. I have mentioned this before, but between 2009 and 2019, on this Conservative Government’s watch, real wages grew by 1%. The Government can repeat their mantra, “Oh, we’re levelling up” as many times as they want, but we need deeds not words. When are we actually going to see some action? Six years ago, we were promised a direct rail route from Hull all the way to Liverpool—six years ago, but we are yet to see it anywhere.

I like to be an optimist, however, so I say to the Minister that I am still hoping for a positive reply to the Hull and Humber NHS trust request for new mental health facilities in the city. I hope that when she looks at the relative areas of need in Hull, she will look favourably on that request, because our hospitals have been hard hit.

I have mentioned the 334 pubs, but there are 131 restaurants unable to open and 109 cafés. Some 574 businesses in total are potentially going bankrupt, with people’s life’s work destroyed. We have mentioned the excluded, and I draw the Minister’s attention again to Charles Cracknell and the young entrepreneurs who have missed out on any funding throughout this pandemic.

I have a few other businesses to highlight. Hotham’s Gin School and Distillery is suffering terribly. It is a place where—when it is open again, everyone is very welcome to come—people can make their own gin, sample it, taste it and take it home at the end. It won a silver award for having the second best customer experience in the country under VisitEngland, but it is unable to open and facing huge costs without the support needed from Government to cover it. Events Made with Love, another events company, organises and supports weddings. It ordered everything for an event before the second lockdown was announced and everything had to be refunded to the customer. That is another business.

There is Lion Heart Hot Yoga studio—I made the request directly to the Government, “Why were yoga studios excluded from being able to open and yet other areas able to do so?” Again, it does not seem to make sense to me. Where is the logic in that? Fancy dress companies are not seeing any business through Christmas and did not see any business through Halloween, missing out on their busiest time. These are all small and medium-sized enterprises. They are not multinational companies with big pockets so they can pay their way out of this. These are small, family-run companies seeing their businesses destroyed.

I wrote to the Chancellor on 7 December asking him to look again at the discretionary support grant applied to Hull. I have had no reply yet. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for fair treatment: compensate us for the length of time that we are spending in tier 3; apply the same judgment to our data as the Government are applying to other areas of the country when deciding which tier we should be in; compensate us for the weaker position that we were put in by this Government at the beginning of the pandemic; give our businesses the support they need to survive; stop people who are trying to do the right thing facing financial penalties; look at that self-isolation payment; give us the support we need to roll out the vaccination. People in Hull West and Hessle are resilient and determined. All we are asking for is our fair share of support so that we can build our own recovery.