A version of this article was first published in The Times
Ever since I heard Matt Hancock, in a recent interview, extol the virtues of getting seven hours sleep a night through this pandemic, I’ve been thinking about what keeps me awake at night. At the top of my list is the government’s planning – or complete lack of it – for local lockdowns. As a Bradford MP, I’ve been closely monitoring how the Government is approaching local outbreaks and, so far, the response hasn’t been good enough.
The Government is right to take action to prevent the spread of coronavirus in a targeted way, but surely this must come with proper support for the areas affected. The instruction to ‘stay at home’ must be underpinned by an economic package to enable workers to do just this. One without the other won’t work.
At the BEIS Select Committee, I questioned the Business Secretary Alok Sharma on what additional help is available to businesses and workers in a local lockdown.
The answer? There is none.
Despite a lockdown in Leicester, the concerning situation in Blackburn, and a longer list of places needing ‘enhanced support’ to deal with the virus, the Government has announced absolutely no new support for people in a locked down area. No local furlough or self-employed support scheme. No further grants for businesses. No pause in the reintroduction of benefits sanctions. This is despite changes to the furlough scheme that are set to start in August.
When I pressed Alok Sharma on this lack of support, he said that he understood that people in places like Leicester were looking forward to returning to pubs and restaurants. This is completely missing the point. We are not talking here about inconveniencing people’s social lives – we are talking about their actual lives.
By refusing to introduce a comprehensive package of economic support for people in a local lockdown, the Government risks further undermining their own public health messages. The lack of public confidence in Government messages is now a fundamental risk in our fight against coronavirus. The Government seems unwilling or incapable of accepting that economic measures are an integral part of the success of local lockdowns. This is strange considering that at the beginning of this pandemic economic support measures, such as the introduction of the furlough scheme, took centre stage in the national strategy to break the infection cycle.
In my home city of Bradford, 75% of workers have never worked from home and most never will be able to. If the Government tells them to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus, they must be supported financially just as people were during the national lockdown.
Now that councils have increased powers to manage local outbreaks, they also need a corresponding increase in resources and information to prevent and deal with local flare ups. Local authorities urgently need to be recognised as equal partners in the fight against covid-19. For this, they need access to accurate, real time data so they can respond quickly. The partial sharing of some data is yet another example of acting late and shows a reluctance to listen to voices from outside a tight circle in government unless they are forced to do so.
The Government must give councils concrete information on the local success of track and trace, including the details of those the national system is unable to reach. SAGE states that 80% of contacts need to be reached within 48 hours to stop the virus spreading. Without this data, local councils are operating in the dark.
If the intention of lockdown is to break the cycle of contact and thereby break the cycle of coronavirus – government needs to act now in these ‘areas of interest’. A proactive approach would be to put economic support measures into these areas beforea local lockdown was needed, to prevent a local lockdown. Prevention really is better than the cure.
This extra support could be used to increase testing, to get public health messages more widely disseminated and crucially for government to act locally, as it did nationally – to provide a full furlough scheme to ensure workers can stay at home, with a degree of job security, whilst local infection rates are high. Saving jobs and saving lives.
We know that coronavirus thrives on poverty. What I am calling for is ‘an oven ready’ local furlough scheme, that can be deployed wherever and whenever it is needed. I am proud to live in and represent Bradford- a city whose people have shown true grit, care and determination despite the challenges posed by Covid-19. But given Bradford’s current place as a consistently high ranking ‘area of local interest’, it will be of no surprise that I have many sleepless nights. I just wish those in government would be as restless. The Government must act now to save lives and livelihoods.