It is heart-breaking that more than 18,000 Londoners and more than 140,000 people across the UK have now died with coronavirus. Every one of these lives lost is a tragedy and my thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends.
It pains me that the coronavirus crisis has not only exposed but increased inequality in our city and across the country. I was concerned that London was not included in the Government’s coronavirus planning until the late stage, despite London’s status as a dense, international city and therefore particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus.
I was first invited to a COVID meeting on 16 March last year  after which the Prime Minister announced that London was - and I quote - “a few weeks ahead” of the rest of the country. I immediately urged all Londoners to stop non-essential social contact and stop all visits to social venues.
The Government was slow to act on advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to close schools and social venues such as bars and restaurants and was slow to introduce lockdown. It was slow to protect our borders and to adopt compulsory face-coverings on public transport, which I called for in early April. The Test and Trace system was inadequate and Government plans to support self-isolation remain insufficient. The Government has lurched from one bad decision to another, repeatedly making slow and poor decisions and making so many U-turns that I have lost count.
I have already said that there must be a full public inquiry when the pandemic is over. Unfortunately, it will show that the Government’s approach has cost many lives. Despite this, we should take heart from the inspiring way Londoners responded at a time of great crisis.
The lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine has now given us light at the end of the tunnel. It is a huge achievement that over 2.7 million doses have now been given to the most vulnerable Londoners and health and care workers. I urge all Londoners to have the vaccine as soon as they are offered it.
Thank you, Mr Mayor, for that answer. The impact of COVID-19 has been referred to as a ‘syndemic’, a synthesis of epidemics coming together. Ten years of a Government policy of austerity, regressive cuts to spending on social care, historical patterns of cuts to public health, cuts to welfare of families and children, cuts in education spending and the closure of children’s centres has left our public services, including the NHS, in a depleted state and a welfare system that disadvantages the lower income groups. Then came the COVID-19 virus, a biological agent that magnified the fault-lines of inequality that exist in society and took advantage of increasing rates of non-communicable disease in our country, leading to the worst death toll in England.
Mr Mayor, do you think the Government has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about the relationship between the social determinants of health and outcomes?
No. I spent some time reading the report from Sir Michael Marmot and the review he did 10 years on from his last report [The Marmot Review 10 Years On, 2020]. That reinforces the points and sentiments raised in your question. It was not just hollowing out Public Health England, it was not just the NHS being starved of resources and having reorganisations that were unhelpful, but also inequalities in our society have been made worse over the last 10 years. All this pandemic has not simply exposed them but has exacerbated them. It is really important that the recovery missions we have, Onkar, address some of these structural inequalities in our society. We cannot allow those to fester or get worse.
Thank you, Mr Mayor. Of course, the other thing you will agree with is that the NHS was under stress even before the pandemic due to the Government policies that I mentioned previously. NHS staff have been at the forefront of the national response to the pandemic. NHS staff have been the heroes that we all clapped on our doorsteps. Even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer clapped for the NHS from Downing Street. In fact, the Prime Minister owes his life to the excellent work of NHS staff.
However, now the Prime Minister, [The Rt Hon] Boris Johnson [MP], has slapped the nurses in the face with his humiliating salary increase of 1%, which in real terms is a pay cut. What do you think will be the impact of this on the morale of the nurses and the impact on your efforts to reduce London’s 11,000 vacant nursing posts? What do you think the impact of all this will be on them?
I know the impact. I spent some time this week and some time last week speaking to and listening to NHS staff including nurses. They are heartbroken. They are angry. Also, they are unclear how they are going to make ends meet because for a variety of reasons, not least inflation and other issues like the cost of living, a 1% pay increase ends up being a pay cut. The short point is that the claps we gave them do not pay the rent. They do not pay the utility bills. It is no comfort if you are the family of somebody who works on the NHS staff to have this from the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. I would ask them even now to reconsider and give our nurses and NHS staff the pay deal and the pay rise they deserve.
I know, Mr Mayor, that you recognise the high cost of living in London and I want to thank you for prioritising the nursing profession on the front line for keyworker housing in London. Hopefully, that will materialise and we can give some reassurance to our frontline staff that London will look after them. Thank you, Mr Mayor.