Since my last bulletin the long predicted second wave of Covid 19 has turned into a tidal wave of infection.

Of course, the virus would exist regardless of whether the Tories or Labour was in government. I blame the government for many things but not the existence of this terrible disease. However, I do blame them – and I do so emphatically and without hesitation – for the disastrous way in which they have managed the country during the pandemic.

The Johnson government decided that the super profits of its billionaire backers are more important than the health and well being of the great majority of the British population. That alone explains why, as the first wave appeared to come under control, they conducted an unseemly dash back to business as usual.

In the workplaces we were told to return to there was a careless disregard for health and safety. They declared that normality was back and we could all eat out to help out, even though furlough had taken away 20% of earnings and unemployment began to soar. Schools and universities were declared safe havens for thousands of children, young adults and staff – so the corporate owners of academies, the privatised colleges and the grasping landlords of empty student accommodation could get back to restoring their dented profit margins.

It would all be alright, according to Johnson, because the virus was now little more than a pop-up nuisance that could now be dealt with by playing Whack-a-mole. An arcade game was going to be more effective than a vaccine – ironic given the closure of gaming arcades under the new restrictions.

Johnson always claimed he was following the science. He wasn’t. The science warned a second wave was inevitable. They suggested it was time to improve testing and tracing capacity, strengthen the NHS, especially critical care facilities, and increase the resources of Councils to cope with the fallout of the crisis in the most deprived areas.

Instead, Johnson’s gang of ministerial “golf club bores” spent the summer messing up young people’s futures with the fiasco over exams, denouncing “militant teachers” who urged caution in the schools, and badgering people to get back to work and stop moaning. This wasn’t following the science it was following the science fiction. And now we are paying the price for the Tory Government’s make-believe policies.

The Big Issues

The Tiers of a Clown

With profound apologies to Smokey Robinson!

The Tories have decided that the solution to the arrival of the pandemic’s long predicted but tragically ignored second wave is to turn England into a three-tiered layer cake. At the bottom of that cake sits tier three, “the north” – or to put it another way, the main centres of the working-class population. Tier three comprises the North West, The North East, parts of the Midlands with South Yorkshire next in line.

As Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester put it, the great cities of the north are being used as “the canaries in the cage” for Johnson’s experiment in regional lockdowns.

The increased rate of infection in our region is a sign that there is a direct correlation between deprivation and poverty and the spread of the disease. Just look at the heat maps of infection. Largely low income, largely high infection rate. Largely poor-quality housing, largely increased numbers of hospital admissions. It is so obvious there should be no hesitation in addressing this as a national emergency requiring a national response.

Rather than acknowledge this and address it through a circuit break national lockdown with proper financial resources directed towards supporting people and businesses through such a lockdown Johnson has opted for regional shutdowns. These will wipe out what the Chancellor Rishi Sunak derided as unviable jobs and will prop up the so-called viable jobs but at the reduced cost of a 67% furlough and a £3000 small business grant.

Make no mistake, the decision to create a three-tier system is not about different levels of restrictions. If restrictions are necessary to flatten the curve, then I am in favour of them being introduced. I hold no truck with those who believe we should just carry on as normal. That would be a recipe for more illness and more deaths. But the Tory three-tier system imposes restrictions in a completely unfair and discriminatory way.

The virus is not bound by geography or tiers. It can travel freely so long as the nation remains in the grip of the pandemic. And so long as that is the case restrictions must be introduced. But fairly. Restrictions must be matched by adequate financial support. This means increasing financial support as compared to the first wave, not, as the government have done, cutting that support. Why? Because we have already endured six months of the pandemic – jobs have been lost, businesses closed, councils have seen their resources disappear, the NHS is under more strain now, not less.

Instead the tier system is punishing the major northern, largely working-class areas – but enabling the economy in other less deprived areas of the country to carry on as normal.

In the original lockdown many people commented on the sense of solidarity and common endeavour that mushroomed in communities across the country. In the second lockdown the country has been carved apart. Different restrictions came in for Liverpool than in Tory led Lancashire – notably over gyms. Tiers one and two can enjoy full wages and a pint. Tier three will have to shell out for a “substantial meal” if they want a pint but have less wages to be able to afford such a luxury.

And while the split between north and south has sharpened dramatically. The Tories have also undermined the collective efforts of the four nations to save lives and beat the disease. That is why the devolved governments have been forced to go their own way thanks to the Tories’ policies, undermining what should be common policies to fight a common enemy.

For all these reasons I applaud Andy Burnham’s resolute opposition to the Tory imposition of tier three restrictions on Greater Manchester. Like me it wasn’t the restrictions as such he opposed. It was the despicable refusal of the government to match those restrictions for support.

Jeanelle de Gruchy, of the Association of Directors of Public Health put it:

“We cannot keep communities safe on a shoestring. An emergency funding package for local outbreak prevention and management is now urgent – we need more people in our places and more money into our councils to get the work done.”

This government may have an 80 seat majority, it may choose to impose its policies rather than negotiate, it may continue on its chaotic road to the ruination of the country’s economy – but determined opposition will turn back the tide, win back the support we lost in December 2019 and lay the ground for us to defeat Boris and his gang in the battles to come. They are all over the place. We need to go on the offensive.

Unfair furlough

When the original lockdown was announced the government paid wages for those on furlough at 80%. This wasn’t enough then and far too many people have been kept dangling for six months on reduced pay only to be sacked anyway.

The regulations surrounding grants for small businesses meant that too many of them fell through the cracks while others spent all their time fighting to get something rather than building their enterprises.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, we now have a situation where “viable” jobs in heavily restricted areas (mainly where our people live) only get a furlough subsidy of 67% while the jobs that Sunak considers “unviable” will go to the wall.

The problem is as plain as the nose on Johnson’s face – if your rent, mortgage, utility bills and food shops stay at 100% but you are only getting 67% you are in big trouble. And instead of being able to “build back better” as Johnson claims our backs will be against the wall. We will face eviction and repossession. We will face court orders for debts we cannot cover. We will see more and more people forced to rely on food banks. And we will still have to wait five weeks after we get sacked to be able to get a penny in the already inadequate Universal Credit benefit.

That is why Labour is rightly demanding a return, at a minimum, to the 80% rate and calling on all responsible big employers who want their businesses to survive to top that up to 100%. It is not our fault that we are unable to go to work because of the government restrictions. So why should we be made to pay for it?

Test and trace or trace a test?

The world beating test and trace system that Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson announced last spring is in chaos.

Now 90% of tests are failing to match the 24-hour turnaround time that is crucial to managing the pandemic. Access to testing is still too limited. Tracing is running at a mere 58% of those who have been in contact with people infected. That means 42% could be out there unwittingly spreading the disease.

And what would be funny – if it weren’t so tragic – is in Kent people were directed to attend a testing centre in the town of Sevenoaks. That was a good choice of location given its accessibility. The only problem was that the test centre people went to didn’t exist. It was a figment of the government website’s febrile imagination.

If you look at South Korea’s infection rate a very efficient, straightforward test and trace system has played a major role in containing the pandemic in this country. It has one of the smallest death rates in the world. Its health service is not overwhelmed, and its economy is not floundering.

In Britain our death rate is soaring, and our health service is once again teetering on the brink of collapse. So, the Tory answer is – outsource the test and trace system and block any meaningful local control over it. In steps Deloitte, a firm that specialise in Accountancy, and their good friend Serco. A so-called public services firms that is a longstanding private company and gleeful recipient of endless cash from a government that works on the default Tory axiom – public sector bad and private sector good.

Naturally Serco was a good choice for the Tories to run test and trace. Why? Because it has absolutely no experience in this field, has no experts, does not have staff trained to the necessary level and frankly does not have a clue how to establish and efficient system let alone run one. But it is ace at making money for its big shareholders. Its current Chair of the Board, Sir Roy Gardner has an impressive CV:

“Chairman of Compass Group PLC, Connaught plc and Manchester United and Plymouth Argyle football clubs. Chief Executive of Centrica plc, Managing Director of GEC-Marconi Limited and a Director of GEC plc, Senior Independent Director of William Hill plc and a Non-Executive Director of Willis Group Holdings Limited and Laporte plc.”

The sharp eyed among you will note that not one of those appointments has any link with any form of public service let alone any health service. Still I feel sure that his time at William Hill means that he is well placed to gamble on the fate of the test and trace system and come out with a good few bob to his name.

And by the way another top boss at Serco is Rupert Soames – brother of former Tory MP Nicholas and grandson of Winston Churchill. Not a hint of favours for their friends from the Tories there then.

In Parliament I challenged Matt Hancock on the outrageous privatisation of this vital service which is failing badly and which goes a long way to explaining why the Britain, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, is one of the leaders in the death rate of this pandemic. He didn’t answer my question.

It is life Gym – but not as we know it!

If gyms must be closed because they are major sources of infection, then so be it. So, when Lancashire went into tier three lockdown after Liverpool one would have expected the same rules to come into force.

But hang on a minute. Lancashire County Council is Tory run. Liverpool City Region is full of troublesome socialists. So, when the restrictions were announced it came as a shock that gyms in Liverpool were ordered to close but those in Lancashire could stay open.

No reason given. No explanation but Gym Owners on Merseyside handed hefty fines for breaking the rules. A classic example – in the Dominic Cummings mould – of one rule for them and another for the rest of us.

I was furious at this and along with other MPs from the City Region challenged the government to explain why there were tiers within tiers and to show us the science. They couldn’t but it now looks as though they have retreated in the face of our campaign and added yet another flip flop to their collection. When Thatcher famously said “u turn if you want to” I don’t think she would have expected her right-wing heir Mr Johnson to take up her advice quite so enthusiastically!

And finally …

I spoke in my first Westminster Hall debate this month on why the public services that have been shamelessly auctioned off to privateering brigands should be restored to the public sector. Here is a link to the event:

In solidarity,

Mick Whitley MP.


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