IT has been six months since Britain went into lockdown.
Six months since the Government ordered the closure of all cafes, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres that fateful Friday.
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Six months since the Chancellor announced that the Government would pay 80 per cent of wages for those employees not working — the “furlough” scheme.
So now — as Labour begins its first ever online party conference — seems a good time to look at what has changed and what needs to change in the months ahead to make sure we see the best future for our country, both for our people and our economy.
Because even if the national lockdown has ended, cities such as Newcastle and Sunderland are back under night-time curfews. The pandemic looks a long way from being over.
And it’s clear that some parts of our economy face very difficult months ahead.
One thing that’s changed a lot is the Labour Party. Keir Starmer became leader in April and we are very much under new leadership.
That’s been reflected in the approach we’ve taken to the pandemic. Like governments across the world, in Britain difficult decisions had to be made fast.
Labour supported the furlough scheme and supported the Government’s interventions to protect public health.
A time like this is a time for politicians to be constructive. We’ve been demanding improvements to the testing system, and we want to see a much stronger focus on protecting jobs.
RECOVERY AT RISK
Right now, the way the virus is flaring up again puts our economic recovery at risk, and that needs to be resolved.
That’s because Labour wants the Government to succeed in getting rid of the virus, because Labour wants Britain to succeed.
That means we need the virus to be brought under control. We need our economy to recover, and recover fast.
That recovery is being put at risk right now by two things. Firstly, by the failure to sort out the testing system.
People are having to drive the length of the country to find out if their children can go to school, if they can go to work and if they’re putting others at risk.
When people rightly point out the system isn’t working and set out ways it can be improved, the Tories complain about “endless carping”.
But it’s not carping to say an effective tracing system is crucial to our recovery. Our scientists are doing brilliant work to crack a vaccine.
But until they do, testing is all we have. All summer we’ve heard the system is “world-beating”, yet in Sunderland we saw queues two miles long to get into testing centres. The Government really needs to get a grip.
Secondly, the Government’s refusal to announce a more targeted support scheme for businesses and jobs is holding back our economy. No one wants furlough to go on any longer than needed.
But a system aimed at supporting perfectly viable businesses and sectors that are still struggling to get back on their feet, for example aviation and hospitality, would aid Britain’s recovery.
With only one in ten people now on furlough, it should be easier for the Government to focus support on jobs in the hard-hit sectors crucial for Britain’s future. But they haven’t done it.
And as well as getting a grip on the public health issues, we need to see the Government laying out a proper plan for getting Britain back on its feet.
We need to see much more ambition from the Government to retrain people for the challenges ahead.
Because we know the world after the pandemic isn’t going to be the same as the world before.
Our country has changed, habits have changed and the job market is changing, too. While Labour welcomes the Kickstart Scheme aimed at younger workers, older workers need support too.
So let’s make sure that if workers in their fifties find themselves out of work, they can get the training and skills they need to move into new jobs and opportunities, as well as support in the here and now.
And of course the Government needs to make sure businesses are in a place to build that economy.
It’s businesses that grow, and businesses that create jobs. They need to be ready to do so, so the recovery is fast and full.
And yet so many businesses tell me they are worried.
So many small businesses have racked up debts over recent months.
Customer habits have been turned upside down and the way firms run has had to be changed fast. In the months ahead they face financial cliff edge after cliff edge, as support schemes run out, loan repayments start and the temporary VAT cut comes to an end.
For small firms in constituencies like mine in Houghton and Sunderland South, proud of operating efficiently on tight margins, each one of these risks tipping the business over, putting jobs and livelihoods at risk.
Small firms are the backbone of Britain’s economy.
The Government must make sure they are well placed not just to recover, but also to flourish. Decisions taken now, or not taken now, will have a huge impact on how our country fares in the months ahead and in years to come.
We need the Government to engage, fast, with the scale of the challenge around supporting jobs now and building our economy for the future.
- Birdget Phillipson is the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
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