With each passing day it is becoming clear that the coronavirus outbreak, and the measures we will need to take to deal with it, are like nothing most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Like many people, the conversations I had over the weekend, with constituents, local councillors and my own family – with my parents about precautions they should take and with my young son to explain what is happening – brought home the seriousness of the situation we face.
The scale of this has been underlined by the leaked report from Public Health England, stating that over the next year 80% of us are expected to fall ill, with as many as 8 million people needing to be hospitalised. On these numbers, and the projected mortality rates, there is the potential for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the UK alone. People are right to be worried about this and to be looking for answers and guidance from the government. On matters of life and death it’s the duty of every MP to pose the questions our constituents have and ensure we get the response right.
It’s clear that the public need full information to be confident that this is the case and that the government needs to provide it. In the past four days, however, it has fallen short. There have been contradictory statements about the approach on ‘herd immunity’, banning large gatherings and on isolation for those aged over 70; articles from health ministers that people should be free to read have appeared behind online paywalls; and there have been leaks, briefings and counter-briefings to different media outlets that have left people searching for answers.
It should be obvious that mixed and partial messages at the current time are dangerous and risk undermining public trust which the government will need over the coming months. So while it should have happened last week, it’s absolutely right that it is now committing to daily media briefings on the outbreak and pledging a public information campaign on how people should respond.
Most immediately the government needs to set out very clearly the approach, and the thinking behind this on social distancing, virus-testing and contact tracing. When the World Health Organisation has raised concerns and when the government is doing things very differently to a number of our close neighbours and countries around the world, it is not unreasonable for the public to expect a clear explanation and this needs to happen as a matter of urgency. Simply saying our response is based on “science” is not good enough.
Another immediate priority must be capacity in the NHS after ten years of austerity. A major concern for the NHS is the number of beds that are available, with intensive care units running at about 80% capacity; if the spread of the virus in the UK is close to the trajectory seen in Italy, the remainder will be used up in weeks. While the government has said it is “negotiating” access to private hospitals, it is unthinkable that they could remain empty during what the Prime Minister has described as “the worst public health crisis for a generation.” The government should be requisitioning premises now as Spain has done today.
Similarly, much more decisive action needs to be taken in relation to ventilators which are essential to providing care. The Health Secretary has confirmed that we will need many times the 5,000 ventilators that the NHS currently has, and the government is now urging manufacturers to switch to producing these. But in truth, the time for urging has long since passed. We need a guarantee this will happen and emergency measures should be included in the proposals being put forward next week to ensure this is the case.
And there are many other urgent steps the government must take. On care services, it must match the commitment in the budget to provide the NHS with “whatever resources it needs” and set out a strategy to ensure it can cope (under the inevitable pressure of staff or those being cared for falling ill). On food and medicines, it must provide extra resource to councils to ensure the continuation of vital services for the elderly, those in self-isolation and the worst off – from delivering prescriptions to food support for food banks.
On the economy more broadly, the government must recognise the need to go much further than the measures announced in the budget, as the major financial impact of the coronavirus becomes clear. To take one example, there are seven million workers who would only be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay of just £94 a week if they fall ill or have to self-isolate – this is less than a third of the rate in Germany. On top of that, there are a further seven million people (self-employed and low paid workers) who would only be entitled to Universal Credit or Employment and Support Allowance, which have standard rates of even less than £94. This is far from enough to live on and the issues don’t stop there.
Thousands of workers employed by airlines, train operators, restaurants and high street shops – all of which have seen sudden reductions in business – are already having hours cut and know their jobs are under threat. Parents are worried about what will happen if they cannot work because they need to look after their children. Those with underlying health conditions are fearful about being in a workplace.
Unless the government acts, many millions will face hardship and people will have a choice between self-isolating or continuing to go into work to make ends meet. So there needs to be an immediate increase in both the level of sick pay and benefits to protect incomes to guarantee people a liveable minimum – and those with underlying health conditions should have a right to work from home. The government must also implement a package of emergency measures to prevent evictions and to suspend mortgage payments, rents and other essential bills for those affected by the virus.
Our response will be measured by how will deal with these issues domestically – but it will also be measured by what we do internationally. While Donald Trump has reportedly attempted to buy up exclusive rights to a vaccine, countries around the world must surely work together on developing a free vaccine to be universally available at the earliest opportunity. The UK should take the lead on committing to this and seeking international co-operation on every element of dealing with the pandemic.
Finally, we must deal with both the global and the UK economy. With whole industries at risk of grinding to a halt and going under, coronavirus is set to be as serious an economic shock as the financial crash over a decade ago and the government must start preparing emergency support measures and a stimulus package that is equal to the scale of this. Ultimately, the measures in the budget last week will be a fraction of what is needed.
The response to the last crisis came at huge cost to the poorest in society and left us vulnerable to this one, with millions of people on the breadline and vital public services stretched to their very limits. We cannot allow this to happen again. As the very nature of the coronavirus outbreak underlines, we are all in this together – our response must protect everyone and ensure that as a society we emerge from this stronger.