Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:03 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:03 pm, 12th January 2021

I wholeheartedly agree with Lee Rowley. Careless talk costs lives. We need to be absolutely clear about the science and be behind it.

On a personal level, I do not care whether the Prime Minister did or did not take a seven-mile bike ride yesterday. What I do care about is the lack of clarity. Clarity ensures that people know what is legitimate and what is not. I say that particularly as a Member of Parliament for the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales. I have no problem with people taking short trips to exercise—I think that is what is intended in the advice. I do have a problem with people packing up their car and making 100-mile or 150-mile journeys to exercise in the Lakes, or indeed anywhere else, at this time.

I want to focus my remarks on the hospitality industry. Tourism and hospitality is the fourth biggest employer in the country and the biggest employer in Cumbria by some distance. Undoubtedly, it has been the worst hit industry in this country during the pandemic. In my constituency, we have seen a sixfold increase in unemployment. At one stage, more than 40% of the entire workforce in my constituency was on furlough, largely because of the reliance on that remarkably important industry.

I make some calls for what the Government should do. I have listened to Cumbria tourism businesses over the last few days. First, the Government were right to defer business rates; I ask them to defer business rates for a further year. They were right to cut VAT; I ask them to extend the VAT cut for a further year. They have been right to extend furlough, but even if we ease restrictions in hospitality and tourism after March, they need to consider the continuation of some form of wage support beyond that period. I say that because we have otherwise healthy businesses that will be at the forefront of leading the fightback in our economy once we begin to move out of this crisis period. If we do not back those businesses now, they will be in no state to be part of the fightback. It is the cash that is going to be the problem. It is great for businesses to have the furlough and therefore have staff wages largely covered, but if a third or a quarter of their overheads are not staff-related, even furlough will not save those businesses from going under in the end.

The cash grants that have been made available to businesses at this time are far lower than those given in the spring. We need equivalent levels of investment in cash flow and grant support for hospitality and tourism businesses to those that we had back in the spring. We also need to stop overlooking the 4,000 people in my constituency who would be counted among the excluded. Many are self-employed or running their own companies, and they are the backbone of any recovery; we need them if we are to get out of this mess after the virus is defeated.