We are at a crucial point in the battle against coronavirus. This summer, there are three key questions the government should be reflecting on. First, are we now doing everything we can to suppress the virus? Second, how can we protect lives and livelihoods? Third, how is it that frontline workers have been left feeling, to quote the National Care Association, kicked in the teeth?
Labour has been a constructive opposition. We accept that no one could have handled coronavirus perfectly. But the truth is that the government has been too slow to act throughout this crisis – too slow into lockdown, too slow on testing and too slow getting PPE to frontline workers. Despite Labour’s warnings in recent months, the government has ignored the red lights flashing on the country’s economic dashboard and been too slow to change course in order to save jobs.
On the occasions that the government has acted at pace, it has too often done so without a clear plan. It is right that decisions on local lockdowns like the ones announced in the north-west, Yorkshire and Leicester should be taken swiftly – but the lack of preparation and guidance has created confusion: people in affected areas are being told to go back to the office with no additional support for childcare and relatives restricted from helping out.
Trying to get answers and clarity from the prime minister is a frustrating experience. His instincts – to make excuses and blame others – are reminiscent of the schoolboy claiming his dog has eaten his homework. His attempts to blame care homes for his government’s failures has done huge damage to the morale of frontline workers. His repeated refusal to accept that test and trace isn’t functioning properly is a roadblock to fixing the issues and restoring public confidence. The government’s failure to make support schemes more targeted and focused is driving up unemployment and leaving people exposed.
Despite the potential for additional local lockdowns and a winter second wave, there is precious little evidence that ministers are preparing for what is coming. Enough. Now is the time to fix problems and drive down cases.
The priority must be reopening schools for the new term. Young people cannot afford another damaging U-turn like the one made by the education secretary in June. The government must set out a clear plan this time, not just hope for the best. If that means making hard decisions elsewhere, so be it: to govern is to choose.
There should also be an acceptance that local lockdowns mean different parts of the country will at times have to live by different rules. That means getting a grip on communications is essential. Reintroducing regular press conferences would help. Working closely with authorities, not governing by diktat, is crucial. There should be an end to anonymous, contradictory briefings to the media.
The government must also make sure that the NHS and social care are ready for another potential spike in infections. We must ensure vulnerable and elderly people aren’t left to fend for themselves, with a plan to ensure we don’t repeat the disastrous mistake of discharging positive Covid-19 cases into care homes.
The government should also join Labour in the fight for jobs, businesses and high streets. The current one-size-fits-all removal of furlough risks a squeeze on jobs that could hand a P45 to people across the country. Furlough shouldn’t go on indefinitely: that’s why we’ve called on the government to tailor it to support people in the worst-hit industries. But we need to go further, backing businesses with a fund – paid for by the underspend on emergency loans to businesses – to stop firms going under. And we also need to drive job creation by investing in infrastructure, skills and training opportunities. So far, the chancellor has had little to say.
Finally, many of the vulnerable who had been shielding until last weekend now face the impossible decision of choosing between their health and their livelihood. This is unfathomable at a time when the chancellor is spending untargeted billions on bonuses for companies who have already brought workers back from furlough, or handing a stamp duty cut to landlords in London and the south-east. Taxpayer money should be spent wisely.
Any steps the government makes to regain the trust of the British people will have Labour’s full support. This crisis is bigger than politics. But the reality is that if the government doesn’t use this summer wisely, focusing on driving down the rate of infection, Britain faces a long and bleak winter.
• Keir Starmer is leader of the Labour party and MP for Holborn and St Pancras