Just over a month ago, MPs voted on the government’s tier system of coronavirus restrictions. I voted against as it was clear, even then, that the system was totally inadequate for getting the virus under control. But I also opposed it because those in the toughest tiers were left without the essential financial support needed to get them through this crisis.
It’s right that we now have a national lockdown, though this alone won’t be enough to drive the virus down and to keep it down. A wider public health package must be in place alongside the vaccine rollout. That must be driven by the principles of a ‘zero Covid’ suppression strategy that has seen the virus virtually eliminated in many East Asian and Pacific countries.
If followed here, this approach would have saved tens of thousands of lives and allowed us to reopen the economy. Such a plan must include putting the NHS in charge of Test and Trace, testing at airports, the restoration of the two-metre rule and providing hotel rooms for those who cannot safely self-isolate at home.
But the lockdown also won’t succeed if people aren’t given proper financial support through this crisis. The government can tell people to stay at home, but too many simply can’t afford to do so. Poverty and destitution should not be the price our communities pay for a lockdown imposed because of government failures to tackle the virus. Just as the banks were once bailed out, we need a People’s Bailout for our communities if we are to defeat this virus.
The absolute minimum demand is that everyone who is being told to stay at home must be financially supported to do so. The government should introduce a minimum income guarantee – including for all self-employed people – to ensure that nobody is pushed into poverty by this crisis. The New Economics Foundation estimates that this would be set at £227 per week, excluding any housing or childcare costs, to guarantee everyone has a minimum level of income.
Many non-essential workers are still expected to go into work. Low-paid workers are especially affected, with the TUC estimating that only one in ten low-paid jobs can be done from home. Workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely, and workers whose jobs could be done remotely but whose bosses refuse to invest in making that possible, face obvious risks of infection. With the new strain much more infectious, getting the virus under control will require more stringent action than before. We should demand that all non-essential workers who can’t work from home are furloughed on full pay.
We also need to see much greater financial support for families with children who are no longer in school. Every parent who can’t work because they’re providing childcare at home should be guaranteed furlough on full pay, and there should be a huge public awareness campaign informing them of their right to this support.
Sick pay remains a critical public health requirement as well as economic issue for many, and one I have been campaigning on for months. The current level of statutory sick pay of just £96 per week is among the lowest in Europe and forces many to choose between protecting their health or putting food on the table. Nearly two million low-paid workers are excluded from even this meagre fund.
Inadequate sick pay isn’t only a crisis for the families left without enough money to live on – it also leads to a greater spread of the virus as people are left with no choice but to go out to work. We urgently need statutory sick pay to be raised to real living wage levels, as the TUC is calling for.
Unfortunately, this is not the only gaping hole in the financial support provided by the government. London School of Economics research suggests the number of renters in arrears could triple this year, so as well as a renewed ban on evictions we need to see a package of rent relief. And the millions so far excluded from any state support since March should urgently get a package of backdated support.
Students, too, have lost out financially because the government – apparently driven by financial motives – reopened face-to-face teaching when it was clearly unsafe to do so. With teaching now online, tuition fees should be scrapped and the rents reimbursed for halls of residences that students are not even able to live in.
Such a financial package will help tackle the social crisis as well as the public health emergency. But Rishi Sunak’s video message announcing new financial support this week failed to mention the plight of millions of workers hit hard by this crisis.
Labour was way behind the curve on the recent debate around closing schools. Lessons must be learnt – and our entire movement must be at the forefront of demands to ensure everyone has the help they need to get through this lockdown.