We stand on the precipice of what many experts warn will be the darkest days in the long war on covid-19. There are now 62% more patients in hospital with covid than at the peak of the first wave. In London, the Mayor has been forced to declare a major incident, with hospitals cancelling potentially life-saving cancer surgeries, and in Liverpool city region, one in 100 people tested positive for this terrible virus last week.
Like other Members, I want to thank the nurses, doctors, carers and other healthcare professionals who have put their lives on the line every single day of this pandemic. With this country in the midst of its greatest crisis since the second world war, they have exemplified the very best of humanity: heroically brave and selflessly committed to the wellbeing of others. So too should we thank the supermarket workers, teachers and cleaners who have kept our country going while so many of us have stayed at home. This crisis has shown us that the real national heroes are not the bankers or the CEOs but, too often, the lowest paid and least recognised in our society, and it is time we fixed that.
For the moment, the best way in which we can do that is to thank key workers by following public health guidance. We all have a responsibility to stay at home, maintain social distancing and protect the NHS. When doctors and nurses working on the frontline beg us to play our part, we must listen. We must also recognise that people can only stay at home if they can afford to do so, and it is incumbent on all of us who have the great privilege of serving in this House to ensure that everyone has the financial support they so desperately need. That is why, in March last year, my party called on the Government to put in place a comprehensive package of support for workers who have been impacted by the pandemic.
The extension of the furlough scheme in the autumn was undoubtedly a welcome development. However, while many of our eastern and European partners have put in place far-reaching programmes aimed at combating unemployment, this Government have instead given us months of uncertainty, chaotic U-turns and broken promises. Too many people are being asked to choose between curbing the spread of covid and putting food on the table. Nearly a year after the pandemic first struck, there are still almost 3 million British taxpayers who are yet to receive a penny of financial support. Instead, they have been told to join the millions of households claiming universal credit—a pitiful amount that Ministers admit they could not live on.
The Government are even threatening to cut the £20 uplift in universal credit in two months’ time. I will not be alone in having been inundated by constituents telling me that they do not know how they and their families will survive if their payments are reduced any further. It is an utterly shameful proposal. I urge Ministers to ensure that there is no detriment to welfare payments at a time of such great economic hardship. I would also like to express my support for the Leader of the Opposition’s call for a flexible furlough scheme that allows parents to meet their childcare responsibility and alleviates the considerable pressure on our schools.