This Prime Minister’s Questions was one of the strangest we’ve had. In light of the spreading coronavirus, the only MPs allowed to attend were the ones scheduled to ask a question. This made for an eerily quiet affair. The focus today was, or course, on Covid-19 and the emergency legislation to be brought forward. Will the government increase the level of sick pay? And will that sick pay be made available to everyone, including those who don’t earn £118 per week? This was the line of questioning from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “You cannot live on £90-odd a week,” he declared, urging Boris Johnson to commit to raising the level of sick pay to that of other European countries. The PM revealed only that he would be bringing forward measures to protect “workers of all kinds”.
And what about renters? “The Chancellor offered nothing to the 20 million people that live in rented homes.” Corbyn reminded Johnson that this figure includes three million households with children. The response? The PM told the House that the government will “bring forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction”. But what will this protection look like? A deferral of rents is not enough. The tenants who can’t pay their rent because they currently have no work will not suddenly be flush enough to cover additional payments after a period of weeks or months of unemployment. A third of them already have no savings. Other countries have gone further and introduced rent suspensions. So too must the UK government.
The Labour leader moved onto concerns about NHS workers. Why are we only testing 10,000 staff for Covid-19 per day? Far fewer than actually work in the NHS and in social care. That will be going up to 25,000 a day, Johnson reassured MPs. Deputy leadership candidate Rosena Allin-Khan drew on her role working in the NHS alongside the staff battling this epidemic to ask a question. Where was the forward planning for protective equipment for staff; where is the testing for medics; why are we waiting so long for mass testing? The PM responded only to say that the UK is proceeding with the “best scientific advice” and patronisingly advised the qualified health professional: “That is how you save lives.” This from a PM who has been briefing the press with often confusing and contradictory statements.
And what wasn’t discussed? The gaping hole is local government. A missed opportunity from the Labour leader here as councils are right now scrambling to bring in emergency provisions across all of their services – housing, public health, social care, welfare and more. And the pressure will only increase. People are already losing their jobs. Residents are already having trouble paying their rent. And after ten years of successive cuts to their budgets, councils’ funding will be further knocked when many people can inevitably no longer pay their council tax. A £500m hardship fund has been announced, but there’s no sign of it yet and it will represent a drop in the ocean when split between the hundreds of local authorities in the country. We are only at the beginning of this crisis, and central government must step up.