On 17 September, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, agreed to most of the restrictions requested by the group of 7 local authority leaders in the North East. On Monday, the Prime Minister then announced the introduction of a new three-tier alert level system to be applied at local authority level across England from 14 October. Newcastle is continuing with similar restrictions after being placed into the ‘High’ tier. This includes a ban on household mixing in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place and the ‘Rule of 6’ in outdoor spaces. You can find out more information on the restrictions that apply to Newcastle here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/local-covid-alertlevel-high The Prime Minister also announced a national 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants and has reversed the Government’s decision to encourage people back to working in offices, now saying that people should work from home where they can. I share the Government’s own scientific and medical advisors’ concerns about their effectiveness.
I continue to believe that the most significant contribution leading to the Government’s failure to control the virus is their inadequate test, track, and isolate system. In June, the Prime Minister promised that 100% of test results would be turned around within 24 hours. The latest figure for in-person testing is just 24%. I have therefore written to the Health Secretary raising my concerns over testing in Newcastle. I am concerned that without a fully operating testing system we risk being in a cycle of lockdowns and easing restrictions.
Labour’s Call for a ‘Circuit Break’
As the numbers sadly continue to move in the wrong direction, it is clear that the Prime Minister has now lost control of the virus, lacks a plan to protect people’s health and the economy and is failing to follow the scientific advice. That is why Labour is now calling for a two to three-week ‘circuit break’ in England. This wasn’t inevitable, but I believe is now necessary. A reset will allow the Government the opportunity to rectify their mistakes, fix the testing system, protect the NHS and get control of the virus.
A ‘circuit break’ is likely to include only essential work and travel permitted, everyone who can work from home being asked to do so, with non-essential offices being closed, household mixing restricted to one except for those who have formed support ‘bubbles’ and all pubs, bars and restaurants to be closed. It is essential that a ‘lockdown’ along these lines must be accompanied by extensive support for jobs and businesses. No business should lose out because of the sacrifices we all need to make.
The Coronavirus Act (Renewal)
The emergency Coronavirus Act is intended to give legal backing for the Government and local authorities to uphold the required social distancing measures during outbreaks of the virus. I understand the concerns about the implications of the Act for our civil liberties. The Act included a ‘sunset clause’. These are included in pieces of legislation which look to extend powers beyond that normally available to public bodies. As Chief Whip to the Parliamentary Labour Party, I am a member of the Shadow Cabinet team dealing with our response to these issues and was a co-sponsor to the amendments we tabled to this emergency legislation. This included the successful amendments to change the sunset clause to sixth months (previously two years), to ensure these sweeping powers come under parliamentary review sooner rather than later. The Government made significant
concessions in response to our representations.
As the powers came under review, I have worked closely with my Labour colleagues to scrutinise this legislation to ensure that any exercise of executive power or action is measured against human rights and common-law standards. The Labour Party will continue to speak out on any attempts to diminish the role of Parliament in our democracy.