Below is the full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s opening speech delivered during the House of Commons coronavirus debate this afternoon.
This coronavirus outbreak will have a lasting impact on our economy and society. Life is never going to be the same again. The immediate task for the Opposition is to help arrest the spread of the coronavirus, and support the public health efforts that are being made while being constructively critical where it is necessary to do so and to ensure there is an improved official response.
Advice or instructions should be clear, absolutely crystal clear, so people know precisely what they should or should not do to limit or slow the virus’ spread. But there needs to be detailed guidance to employers and workers about which workplaces should close. Clear communication from the government is vital for everybody’s safety.
This crisis is presently exposing the vulnerabilities in our economy and our society. Underfunded public services, insecure work, and a threadbare social security system – they all carry a heavy burden. It is usually hidden, but has been thrust into a brutal light by a public health emergency.
It is also showing us just how dependent we are on each other, on the many ties of mutual aid that, woven together, make up the fabric of our society. We can come out of this crisis with that fabric strengthened if we value and support each other.
And the first step along that path is to say thank you. Thank you to all those whose efforts will help us overcome this virus. Thanks first to those delivering public and essential services, and especially to our NHS staff on the front line – the medical professionals, healthcare workers, auxiliary staff, administrators and the whole team in every health facility, already overstretched but now coming under unimaginable pressure.
Thanks go to the social care workers caring for some of our most vulnerable people. They go to the civil servants putting in incredibly long hours, local government workers, teachers, postal workers and so many others. But when we talk about key workers, it’s not only those I have mentioned that keep society going.
On Monday, the Hon Member for North West Hampshire said, and I quote: “When we emerge from this crisis… there will be a general reassessment about who is important in this country and what a ‘key worker’ means.” I think he’s absolutely right.
We can all now see that jobs that are never celebrate are essential to keep society going. Think of the refuse workers, the supermarket shelf-stackers, the delivery drivers, the cleaners. They are often dismissed as low-skilled. But I ask, who are we least able to do without in a crisis – the refuse collector or the billionaire hedge fund manager?
All of those workers need so much more than our thanks. Right now, they need our help. And as we look beyond the crisis, they will need our respect. Because people we respect would not be treated the way they have been treated throughout the last decade of austerity.
Right now, we must guarantee our NHS staff the Personal Protective Equipment they’re crying out for, no excuses. Doctors have said they’ve had to go to ScrewFix to buy face masks. They need visors, long gloves, surgical gowns and hand sanitiser. And they need them now.
One doctor was quoted saying: “I feel totally abandoned. We don’t have the protective equipment that we desperately need and our children are being treated like orphans and sent off to care camps.” NHS staff are putting themselves on the line for the rest of us; we must not let them down for a moment longer.
It’s a matter of their safety and their patients’ safety. And for the same reasons, let’s test our NHS staff for the virus. It’s an absolute requirement to accelerate testing throughout the population. “Test, test, test,” as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, instructed us. Let’s pay tribute to his steadfast and calm leadership.
As we look beyond this crisis, our NHS staff should be treated with respect. That means ensuring the health service in which they work is well funded, bringing down their levels of stress and ending the outsourcing and privatisation of their jobs. Right now, we have to ensure that our social care workers also have the very best Personal Protective Equipment and full testing.
And they need financial security too. I raised this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions four weeks ago. A quarter of social care workers are on zero-hours contracts. Their job is to travel from house to house making contact with those at highest risk from the virus, perhaps seeing 12 or more clients a day.
They need to be given the security that they can afford to stay off work if they have symptoms, yet they were not included in the Chancellor’s scheme to pay 80% of wages. This must be addressed immediately.
As we look beyond the crisis, we need to learn the lesson and end the scandal of paying so little to those entrusted with the care of our loved ones. Let’s end the disgrace of 1.4 million people being denied the social care they need.
Right now, the government can give peace of mind to all self-employed and insecure workers with an equivalent income protection scheme to that devised for employees. It’s got to be done very, very quickly indeed. The freelancers, workers on zero-hours contracts, and those with no recourse to public funds still have no support.
From cabbies to childminders, actors to plumbers, people are being told to do something extraordinary, to stop earning a living. Having made that demand, the government has an awesome responsibility to ensure they don’t immediately fall into hardship and are able to do what’s necessary for public health.
And the government should ensure the closure of any construction work that isn’t urgent or health and safety related, just as Transport for London and the Scottish government have already done. We’ve all seen the images of public transport in the last couple of days, full of construction workers who still have to go on site. The government must take action to close sites and provide those workers with the necessary economic support too.
As we look beyond the crisis, we should give all workers respect, with proper social security extended to the self-employed and full workers rights for all, including those in the gig economy. Right now, we absolutely must raise statutory sick pay to European levels.
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has said honestly that he could not survive on £94 per week, so how can the government expect others to? As we look beyond the crisis, no one should become poor just because they’re ill.
Many people have been shocked to find just how low the level of statutory sick pay is. They may be even more shocked to find that disabled people on Employment and Support Allowance are expected to survive on even less – £73 a week – as are those on Jobseeker’s Allowance. And for carers, it’s less still – Carer’s Allowance is just £66 per week. This is simply unacceptable.
Right now, we have to give support and security to renters. The government promised 20 million renters a ban on evictions, and then broke its promise. Its emergency legislation doesn’t stop people losing their homes due to coronavirus, it just gives them three months to pack their bags.
This public health emergency will become a housing and homelessness emergency if the government doesn’t change course now. Shelter estimates that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the government acts to stop them. Labour’s demands are clear: ban evictions for six months. Suspend rent for those affected by coronavirus.
As we look beyond the crisis, we must give tenants greater rights and control exorbitant rents, and we need real solutions to the housing crisis. And please, let’s end rough sleeping and homelessness. We all know it’s wrong that in the fifth richest country in the world so many are without a home.
I pay tribute to the Mayor of London, whose team have worked tirelessly to secure hotel accommodation for rough sleepers, aiming to get 3,000 hotel rooms for people who have been sleeping on our streets.
The government can make a pledge – today – that anyone who was homeless before the pandemic won’t be returning to the streets. If we can house people in a crisis, then we can keep them housed when it’s over.
Right now, we need to support all of our public services as they face their greatest test. Everyone, every single person in our country, can now see how public services underpin our way of life. As we look beyond the crisis, our public services must never again be subjected to deeply damaging and counter-productive cuts, as they have been for the last 10 years.
The hard truth is that austerity has left us all weaker in the face of this pandemic. We should not have gone into it with 94% of our NHS beds full; with 100,000 NHS job vacancies; with a quarter of the number of ventilators per person that Germany has. Ventilators are our most precious resource in this crisis. We should not have begun with so few. We need more of them urgently and we need staff who can use them.
We all have a duty to do what we can for the collective good, to come together, to look out for each other, our loved ones, our neighbours, our communities. But we also need collective public action to be led by the government. That is the only power that can protect our people from the devastation that coronavirus could wreak.
This crisis demands new economic thinking. We cannot rely on the old way of doing things. The major crises we face as a society cannot be solved by the market. Coronavirus, the climate emergency, huge levels of inequality, increasingly insecure patterns of work, the housing crisis. These can only be solved by people working together, and not against each other.
The corporations and giant multinationals which wield so much power in our economy, and have the ears of Prime Ministers and Presidents worldwide, will always put private profit ahead of public good. Just look at the actions of Tim Martin, the chair of Wetherspoons, telling his staff, who make very little money while he has raked in millions, to go and work in Tesco, instead of standing by them in their hour of need. Look at the grotesque attempts of Mike Ashley to keep his shops open, putting his staff at risk.
And the insatiable greed of those at the top is also driving another crisis – even more dangerous as we look to the future: the climate emergency. Oil companies and fossil fuel extractors continue to destroy our planet, our air, and our wildlife, threatening the future of civilisation itself. We will need to find the same urgency to deal with this threat as we are seeing now against coronavirus.
The coronavirus crisis will not be solved by those driven by private profit and share prices. It will be solved by the bravery of our NHS workers who are on the frontline. It will be solved by communities coming together in all their diversity. It will be solved by the government and public institutions taking bold action in the interests of the common good.
This crisis shows what government can do. It shows what government could have always done. We’ve found the money to give more support to people in financial hardship. We’ve found the money to increase investment in our NHS. We’ve found the money to accommodate homeless people in hotels.
If we can do it in a crisis, we could do it in calmer times too. We are learning through this crisis the extent of our interdependence. If my neighbour gets sick, I might get sick. If the lowest paid worker in a company gets sick, they might make the CEO sick. If somebody on the other side of the world gets sick, that can make any of us sick.
Indeed, the virus is now hitting war-torn Syria and the mass open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. If healthcare systems in Europe can’t cope, just imagine what it will be like for countries in the Global South.
Save the Children has warned of “perfect storm conditions for a human crisis of unimaginable dimensions”. This virus knows no national borders, and neither should our capacity for compassion and care for our fellow human beings.
The internationalism of the doctors from Cuba who have gone to fight the virus in Italy is inspirational. As is the action of the European Union, which has given Iran 20 million Euros to help overcome this disease. It is a scandal that sanctions are preventing many Iranians accessing vital medical supplies.
As the old trade union slogan goes, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all, united we stand, divided we fall’. And people across our country know this. So many are showing such compassion in the face of adversity.
Just look at how people are coming together, look at the mutual aid groups that have sprung up everywhere, with thousands of people organising to protect their communities. That is the spirit in which we must go forward.
After this crisis, there is no doubt that our society and our economy will be and has to be very different. We must learn the lessons from this crisis and ensure that our society is defined by solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.