Earlier this week, the Prime Minister published a roadmap out of lockdown. This plan sets out four steps to ease coronavirus restrictions over the coming months. Clarity on the way forward has long been needed and I know that the announcement will have come as welcome news for my constituents after an extremely difficult winter. However, I remain deeply concerned about the Government’s financial support for workers and businesses. I am contacted each week by residents who have lost their jobs and livelihoods and the timescale for economy recovery is uncertain and fraught with risk. It is irresponsible of the Prime Minister to announce that restrictions on economic activity will remain for some time without confirming the on-going support for businesses and individuals whose income is affected at the same time, creating further anxiety and uncertainty. You can read further details of the roadmap and my full thoughts here >>
The pandemic and the necessary restrictions have had a profound impact on all of our lives. Not being able to see our loved ones for so long has been devastating, many children and young people have lost months of their education, and many businesses have lost a year of trade through closures and disruption. Whilst I have no doubt that these restrictions were necessary to protect lives and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine now offers a route back to normality. The Government’s full roadmap can be read here but they key points are below:
- Step 1 – Children and students return to face to face education on 8th March alongside twice weekly rapid testing for secondary and college pupils. People will be allowed to leave home for recreation and exercise with one person from outside their household. Care home residents will be allowed one regular visitor. From the 29th March, outdoor gatherings of either 6 people OR two households will be allowed. Outdoor sports facilities will be allowed to reopen. The stay at home order will be lifted but other restrictions continue. People should continue to work from home and minimise their travel as much as possible.
- Step 2 (no earlier than 10th April) – All retail, hairdressers, personal care facilities, libraries and gyms will reopen. Outdoor hospitality can resume and people can travel to self-contained accommodation such as campsites and holiday lets. The number of people able to attend weddings and wakes will rise to 15.
- Step 3 (no earlier than 17th May) – Outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people can resume and indoors the rule of 6 or two households will apply. Indoor hospitality can reopen but must continue following Covid-secure guidance such as table service. Indoor entertainment venues including cinemas will reopen and some large events of up to 1,000 people can resume indoors. Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings and funerals.
- Step 4 (no earlier than 21 June) – The Government hopes to remove all legal limits on social contact and reopen remaining sectors including nightclubs, live events and performances.
Each step will be subject to the data on vaccinations, cases and hospitalisations continuing to improve and will not be confirmed until closer to the time. The Government has also commissioned reviews to report on reopening international travel and on removing wider social distancing measures such as mask wearing.
I welcome the Government’s decision to take a slow and cautious approach to reopening. Throughout the pandemic, the Government has often been too slow to act to introduce restrictions and too quick to release them, leading to a painful cycle of spiralling infections followed by restrictions which are harsher and longer than would have been needed had action been taken sooner. It is crucial that the Prime Minister sticks to this new approach and continues to carefully follow the data and scientific advice.
The roadmap will still leave many businesses unable to open for some time – including the hospitality, tourism and culture sectors which have been hardest hit by the pandemic. It is deeply disappointing that the Prime Minister did not provide any clarity on economic support and deferred any announcements until next week’s budget. Businesses and workers need answers now, and Labour forced votes in Parliament earlier this week to call for the comprehensive plan needed to secure our economy and rebuild our country.
1.74 million people are currently out of work and the economy will take many years to recover. It is vital that the Chancellor confirms no-one who has lost their income due to the pandemic will be abandoned when restrictions ease. The Budget must be used to extend the Coronavirus Job-Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, close gaps in support which have left many of my constituents excluded from support and extend the £20 uplift in Universal Credit. Labour is also calling on the Government to reverse the key worker pay freeze, and extend the business rates relief and the temporary 5% reduced rate of VAT to provide businesses time to recover.
I also remain concerned that further support is needed to prevent any easing of restrictions leading to the virus spreading rapidly again. Whilst real world data shows the vaccine works, reducing serious illness and transmission rates, there will be remain a proportion of the population who are unprotected whilst future variants remain a real risk.
Worryingly, just three in 10 people who should be self-isolating are actually doing so. It is crucial that the Government ensures the Test and Trace system works so that all cases of coronavirus are identified and contacts who present a risk of transmission identified. This must be supported by comprehensive financial support for people required to self-isolate. Far too many people on low incomes are being deterred from getting a test in case they are unable to work. The current Statutory Sick Pay rate of £95.85 is wholly inadequate for anyone to live on. Labour has called on the Government to extend the £500 isolation payment to everyone who needs it and is without sick pay from their employer. The Chancellor must address this in the upcoming Budget.
Finally, the Government must provide more support for schools to safely reopen. We all agree about the importance of in-person learning, but teachers and students must be protected. It is important that the Government publishes the scientific advice on which the decision to reopen schools is based. I am deeply disappointed that the Government failed to use the February half-term to vaccinate teachers and support staff and it is concerning that the Prime Minister did not make any reference to the challenges many schools are experiencing finding large well-ventilated spaces. Vaccinating teachers and support staff across England would use less than two days’ supply of vaccine, but would deliver substantial benefits in reducing sickness absence rates amongst teachers, reducing spread of the virus in schools and alleviating the anxiety that so many teachers and support staff have been living with over the past year. The Government must urgently agree to vaccinate school staff and other key workers and ensure schools have the resources they need to safely re-open to all students, as well as providing the dedicated catch-up resources and mental health support our children need.
The coming months will continue to be challenging for many, but there is now hope of a return to normality this year. I will continue to work hard to hold the Government to account for their failings and to press them to ensure all residents are supported through these difficult times. As ever, please do let me know if there is anything I can do to help and please keep safe.