On Thursdays people in Newcastle have been joining the rest of the country in coming together and showing our appreciation for all those who are fighting Coronavirus on the frontline. As well as healthcare workers, the country also applauded all those who are working to keep us safe and looking after our wellbeing. I want to pay tribute to their hard work and bravery during these difficult times. As you will be aware, sadly, the number of people who have died from Coronavirus in the North East has continued to rise and is now over 700 in North East hospital trusts. My thoughts are with the families of those who have passed away and with everyone currently suffering from the virus. I urge everyone to follow the Government’s guidance, to stay at home, slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
The Labour Party will continue to engage constructively with the Government and support them where decisions are based on scientific and medical advice. It is, however, the duty of the Official Opposition to probe the Government and hold them to account where appropriate. That is what we have been doing.
I was a cosponsor to the amendments we tabled to the Government’s emergency legislation. The amendments intended to highlight our areas of concern. I am glad that the Government made significant concessions in response to our representations. There are, however, continuing areas of concern which we are pushing the Government on. In Parliament we are exploring virtual ways of working. As Opposition Chief Whip I am involved in the arrangements for Parliamentary business. I support virtual Parliamentary Questions so that we can question the Government during the movement restrictions.
Personal Protective Equipment
Professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and Royal Colleges have joined trade unions in making clear that the workers they represent do not have the protective equipment they need. Government guidance has said that those coming within two metres of suspected cases should be wearing PPE. Labour has been clear that this guidance must be backed by an adequate supply. I understand that the army has been drafted in to deliver PPE to hospitals. However, I remain worried that this is still not reaching those who need it fast enough. Labour will continue to push the Government to ensure that PPE reaches everyone who is working on the frontline including social care workers, dentists and pharmacists. It is essential that those caring for us are themselves protected.
I strongly believe that the UK should adhere to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice of “test,test,test”. Whilst the Government’s new target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April is welcome, it seems as though we are a long way off actually achieving it. Labour has made it clear that it must be an absolute and urgent priority for the NHS and care staff to have access to testing. We are continuing to seek urgent clarification from ministers about what their plan is to secure necessary supplies and why they have not initiated a universal, community-based testing and contact tracing programme.
Following pressure from the Labour Party, trade unions, and the Federation of Small Businesses, I am glad that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a support package for the self-employed. This package matches the support for those in employment. The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) will offer cash grants worth 80% of a self-employed worker’s average monthly trading profit over the last three years. These will be capped at £2,500 per month and the Scheme will last for at least 3 months, with the possibility for extension. The Chancellor says that it will cover 95% of those who receive the majority of their income through self-employment, and is open to those with tradable profits up to £50,000 in 2018-19. I also welcome the Chancellor’s more general business support measures which might benefit the self-employed, such as business loans for small to mediumsized enterprises and local authorities freezing business rates. The self-employed are particularly vulnerable at this time, working in sectors that are seeing large falls in demand due to social distancing measures. I remain concerned that those eligible for the SEISS have to wait until June to receive payment. Labour is urging the Government to improve the system further so that it protects people on reduced hours, carers, and those who started work after 28 February.
Statutory Sick Pay
I welcome the Chancellor’s announcements on some reform to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Workers advised to self-isolate because they or a member of their household have coronavirus symptoms are now entitled to SSP from day one. The Government will also fund SSP for businesses with under 250 employees for any employee off work for up to 14 days. I applaud the Trade Union Congress in joining with the Labour Party in pressing for these changes. I would like to see the Government go further still. They currently have no plans to significantly increase the rate of SSP which is much lower than comparable support in other Western European countries. Labour will continue to call on the Government to raise SSP and extend eligibility to people paid below the threshold of an average of £118 per week.
Access to Abortion Services
I strongly believe that it is right that women continue to have safe and prompt access to abortion services during this crisis. This is a difficult time for our health service, and it is understandable many are concerned about the potential implications on medical oversight for women. The Government has announced women in need of an early medical abortion up to the tenth week of pregnancy will be able to receive by post and self-administer the required medications in the home, following a video or telephone consultation with a doctor. This is being referred to as ‘telemedicine’. This procedure will ensure that women can have access to medical abortions, whilst also practicing social distancing by not attending busy clinics. This decision has been welcomed by professional medical bodies such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. I also appreciate concerns over healthcare capacity and its implications for these services. The RCOG has said that although the extent of service disruption is still uncertain, they are seeking to work with the NHS to ensure that services are delivered as remotely as possible. I understand there is also an ongoing health and social care volunteer recruitment drive, as well as a concerted effort by the NHS to bring healthcare professionals who have left temporarily back into practice. This is intended to help ensure, as far as possible, minimal delays for all urgent healthcare provision.
I was contacted by a number of constituents who raised concerns over changes to processes for coroners and burials. The Government’s emergency legislation sought to reduce the timescales of death management by simplifying the current processes. The Act also gives local authorities the power to direct those in the death management system to ensure excess deaths caused by the virus do not overwhelm the system. For example, enabling local authorities to direct actors not usually directly involved in funeral management to provide necessary support.
Whilst the amount of correspondence I have received on Universal Credit (UC) has been steady I am anticipating an increase in the coming weeks. Almost a million people have made a claim for UC in the last two weeks. I stand by Labour’s Manifesto commitment to ultimately replace UC. In the meantime, I agree with the Trussell Trust that the UC advance should be made nonrepayable and the basic level of UC should be increased along with related benefits. Additionally, carers and children have had relatively little recourse from the Government’s economic response to coronavirus. Labour are calling for an increase to Child Benefit and Carer’s Allowance.