Labour’s focus on border controls as PM delays lockdown lifting comes with a risk

Sienna Rodgers
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Boris Johnson has confirmed what we already knew was coming: the final stage of unlocking will be delayed in England by four weeks, from June 21st to July 19th. Social distancing, mask-wearing, working from home where possible, the rule of six indoors, the rule of 30 outdoors and nightclub closures will all remain in place, with only weddings and wakes exempt from the postponement. There are two main reactions to the announcement that matter to the government: one, lockdownsceptic Tory MPs opposed to the delay and concerned that the four weeks could be extended further; two, business leaders angry about the lack of news from the Treasury, because as usual there was no unveiling of financial support at the same time as restrictions.

The business rates holiday ends this month and employers will need to start contributing 10% towards furlough costs from July. The Federation of Small Businesses has called for the tapering of furlough to be delayed, for bounceback loans to be written off for closed businesses and for full business rates relief to be extended for hard-hit sectors. The Trades Union Congress also expressed concern for the arts and hospitality sectors in response to the latest coronavirus press conference, and wants targeted support as well as an extension to furlough. But the Prime Minister appears to reckon he can get away with offering no more support if the delay is only four weeks long.

Labour is set to support the government’s decision to lift restrictions later, reasoning that this is the best move considering the present situation but also that this situation was avoidable. The party will force a vote today on “securing our borders”, including scrapping the ‘amber’ list and moving all those countries to the ‘red’ list. Nick Thomas-Symonds is delivering a speech this morning that refers to the Delta variant as the “Johnson variant” and lays the blame for the delay squarely on the Prime Minister’s “negligence”. The Shadow Home Secretary is emphasising the opportunities – big family gatherings, birthdays, etc – that people will be devastated to miss due to the delay.

Polling, however, shows 71% adults in England are in favour of the delay. Frankly, I don’t think most people are all that bothered by it: being able to go inside restaurants and meet friends and family in our homes is already very exciting. The important exception to that is those working in the sectors affected. While a focus on borders may seem politically savvy because it is counterintuitive for Labour to be calling for stricter controls, and these are popular, the danger is that making this Labour’s key message plays into Johnson’s main attack line, which accuses Starmer of picking holes in the government’s approach to Covid rather than providing constructive opposition. If the speech today had been from Rachel Reeves talking about the need for more financial support, it might have meant a lot more to those who really are bothered by the four-week delay. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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